Adjacent to some of the most valuable inland property along the central Gulf Coast.
In this time of rapidly escalating real estate prices, that kind of deal is unheard of but not impossible if you’re planning to build a tourism-generating, $130 million aquarium on 11.76 acres of formerly county-owned land between The Mall at University Town Center and Nathan Benderson Park.
Last week, the Sarasota County Commission unanimously voted to convey the site near I-75 to Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium for $100. There, the nonprofit marine research organization plans to build a new 110,000-square-foot aquarium, a project years in the making. Mote closed on the land last Thursday.
“This is the culmination of about four years worth of work to get to the point to where we can convey the property so that we can begin the construction of the aquarium,” Assistant County Administrator Brad Johnson told commissioners. “In January of 2019, we executed the omnibus agreement between the county and Mote for the construction of the aquarium. A year later, a short-term lease was entered into and then that has been amended twice over the years to allow for the infrastructure improvements to be made at the site to get to the point that we're at today.”
Having demonstrated the requisite proof of its ability to pay for construction of the facility, Mote is now clear to move forward on the project that will double the size of its four-decades-old aquarium on City Island between Lido Key and Longboat Key.
Branded Mote Science Education Aquarium (Mote SEA), Mote reached a $90 million fund-raising milestone in October 2021.
Michael Moore, special advisor to the office of the president who has led the fundraising campaign for the Mote SEA, said donations have picked up pace since the land was conveyed, adding an announcement about the next milestone will come this fall.
"The community's response to the project is accelerating with prospective donors as they see the project is starting to materialize," Moore said. "Definitely when it comes out of the ground in a few months we know that's going to help us toward the goal."
Meanwhile, site work in preparation for vertical construction continued.
The building pad has been formed and a pond at NBP drained to replace pipes that enable flow between ponds, then refilled. In 2018, the County Commission committed $20 million in tourist tax funding million toward construction. Once Mote has reached its goal of $110 million, the county funding will be the last money in.
According to Mote Vice President Dan Bebak, piling work will begin by the end of summer with completion of the three-story aquarium expected in 2024.
"Now that we own the land, we formally submitted for the final permit review to Sarasota County, and hopefully that will be done in a few weeks," Bebak said.
According to its website, in 2019 it projected the Mote SEA will serve approximately 700,000 visitors in its first year, doubling the attendance of the current Mote Aquarium. In addition to providing conference and major events spaces, Mote projects nearly $28 million in annual economic impact beyond nearly $280 million of impact during construction.
“It will be a big eye-catcher on I-75,” said Commissioner Nancy Detert. “I can't believe they get as many tourists as they get considering where they're at. They're hard to find and it needs a lot of upkeep. But once they build that aquarium, they should have millions of visitors because everybody's going to want to stop there.”
While the Mote SEA will have the potential to capture the attention of some 52 million vehicles a year on the interstate, its more remote current facility will gain capacity to expand marine research. Mote is a leading researcher, for example, of red tide.
“Back in 2018, this was kind of a three-legged stool,” Commissioner Mike Moran said. “The aquarium was obviously getting a lot of attention and will get a lot of attention, but the foundation is most related to the science laboratory. Most importantly (is) the career creation that's going to come from this as people come from literally all over the world looking to work for Mote on the science side of the just amazing things that they do. … The underpinnings of this is the science behind all of it and the career creation that's going to come about from this.”
The Mote SEA will be the latest in community investments that appeal to the area’s demographic shift toward younger families. Commissioner Christian Ziegler recalled the entertainment limitations when he moved here in his early 20s two decades ago.
“There’s always been that challenge for families and for young people of what do you do in town. But now we’re moving to this next stage that I think is incredible for our community,” Ziegler said. “When you start talking about this aquarium, pulling it off the island and putting it over by the UTC area near the highway, it’s a lot more accessible to everyone in the county. Then you have the restaurants there. You can really make a day of going to that area.”
All for $8.50 per acre, plus a couple of million dollars, Bebak added, that it took to get there.