Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Aquarium, library projects in Sarasota, Lakewood Ranch set to go skyward in 2022

Willis Smith will begin vertical construction of library, aquarium late this year.

  • East County
  • News
  • Share

In its 50th anniversary year of 2022, Willis Smith Construction of Lakewood Ranch will be building two projects likely to be considered East County landmarks for decades to come.

Neither will be finished until 2023, but the vertical part of construction for both projects this year will attract plenty of attention.

"After the pandemic created a couple of slower years, it's nice to look forward to building significant landmarks that will be in this community a long time," said Dave Sessions, the CEO and president of Willis Smith Construction. 

The two projects — the $130 million Mote Science Education Aquarium at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota and the $17.3 million East County library at Premier Park in Lakewood Ranch — are different in terms of scope and cost, but both offer significant upgrades to the community.

"Mote will be an iconic structure and everyone will recognize it," Sessions said of the aquarium. "The visual effect will draw people in.

"In Manatee County, the mindset (toward the library) is more toward being practical and getting the most for your money. Manatee County wants functional attractiveness without spending an extraordinary amount for a monument. Mote has different goals. You're going to see it from I-75, the mall, across the lake. The additional dollars will pay for itself. People will drive by … 'Wow!'"

Sessions said Fawley Bryant Architecture of Lakewood Ranch gave the "Wow effect" to the East County library while sticking to a very functional design.

"The library involved two years of planning with Fawley Bryant leading the way," Sessions said. "The design took into account every detail, every space, every function. The results will be spectacular. It's rectangular and cost effective — four walls and a roof — but to Fawley Bryant's credit, they get it."

Sessions said Fawley Bryant designed a stairway on the outside of the building that leads to the roof and an observation and entertainment area. He said that stairway draws the eye to the front entrance of the building and makes it special. Once to the roof, the area is designed for events that will provide views of the park and the area's lakes and wetlands.

"It identifies the entry point, like a welcome mat," Sessions said of the stairway. "It breaks up a large rectangular building that is cost effective."

Both projects have broken ground and are concentrating on below-the-ground and foundation work with vertical construction planned for the fourth quarter this year.

At the aquarium site, the parking lot has been constructed and the drainage that needs to be accomplished is almost finished. Stormwater pipes have been stockpiled and crews are working on water and sewer lines. The process of adding 30 feet of fill below the aquarium's future foundation has just begun (the site previously was a small lake). Foundation work will begin in the third quarter this year.

Sessions said the foundation work needs to be "phenomenal" because of all the water tanks and the weight of the 1 million gallons of water the building will hold.

Architect Fawley Bryant designed an outside staircase that will give the new East County library a unique look.
Architect Fawley Bryant designed an outside staircase that will give the new East County library a unique look.

Dan Bebak, Mote's vice president of aquarium, education and outreach, said the process of integrating the large water tanks into the structure of the building is fascinating.

"You are not going to pour a pad, then put in a tank," he said. "The big tanks are integral into the engineering of the project, and the pilings. The tanks (and the water) are so massive and so heavy. Some of them are on the second floor and the third floor. This has been a fun game with the structural engineers, and it's all going to be happening at the same time."

Vertical construction will begin in the fourth quarter.

That will be an important time for Mote Marine.

"We have raised over $90 million," said Michael Moore, Mote's special advisor to the office of the president. "We have been quiet for a long period, but we are going to start making announcements. We are looking at each month making headway. People are going to see it going up and they will want to jump on board."

Moore said 84% of the funds raised to this point have come from new donors to Mote Marine and he calls that an exciting development. Those who want to track the construction progress can go to and check out the web cams recording the action.

Bebak said all the building plans for the aquarium are completed and have been submitted to Sarasota County for approval. 

While construction continues, Bebak said the aquarium is finalizing animal acquisitions. He said those need to be at the aquarium five to six months before the doors open. Fish need to get acclimated to the environment first.

Most of the aquarium's executive positions are being held by those in similar roles at the current aquarium so the hiring process is limited at this time. The aquarium is interviewing food and beverage partners and will finish that process in March.

Bebak said the project appears to be "relatively" on schedule with solid planning for supplies that have limited supply chain issues and few weather challenges.

Sessions said his company's longtime relationship with contractors in the area has limited any shortage of workers caused by the pandemic.

After living in East County for the past 36 years, Sessions said he still gets excited by the importance of such projects. The library project especially hits home for him.

"My kids went to the Braden River Library and we just completed its expansion," he said. "Having this library (in Lakewood Ranch) just made sense. And I don't really call it a library. I call it a community center. Libraries today are not about books. They have meeting rooms, and children's centers and youth areas."