Until last week, the Mote Science Education Aquarium has been a dream in the making for about four years. With last week’s sale of 11.76 acres near Nathan Benderson Park by Sarasota County to the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, things are getting real.
Not that there was much doubt the Mote SEA would be built. A 2018 omnibus agreement with the county allowed Mote to begin developing the site in preparation for vertical construction. And as of October 2021, Mote had raised $90 million toward its capital campaign goal of $110 million for the $130 million facility. The county previously had committed the last $20 million — revenue from tourist taxes — toward the development costs.
The site is largely cleared and the parking lot essentially completed. A portion of the parking lot is already open to public use for the adjacent park, the rest reserved for construction staging.
Construction, said Mote Vice President Dan Bebak, should start within weeks.
“We are on schedule to start the piling work, which is really the first phase of the vertical work, in mid-August,” Bebak said. “We're looking at opening in 2024.”
The nearly 12 acres just a few hundred yards from Interstate 75 was previously donated to Sarasota County by Benderson Development — developer of UTC Town Center — for use as a park. The county conveyed the property to Mote for a symbolic price of $100. Now with the property under its ownership, Mote has submitted for final permit review with the county.
Bebak said he expects construction to go as scheduled, having gotten ahead of supply chain issues by pre-ordering materials, some of them unique to building an aquarium.
"We've been working on that for a while, even pre-ordering things where we could,” he said. “We're feeling pretty good about that. There are some some very long lead items like the big acrylic windows that take time. We’ve ordered those already, so we knew that there was some stuff that was going to take some time.”
As opposed to developing an office or other commercial building, the Mote SEA will have massive tanks and marine life exhibits on each of its three levels.
“You’re kind of almost building the building from inside out,” Bebak said. “Some of the first work that you'll see after the pilings will be the big tanks — the Gulf of Mexico tank and some of the other ones — and the building gets built around those.
“The building is three stories, which is kind of unique for aquariums. It's made for some of the engineering challenges because we’ll have manatees up on the third floor, so it's going to be a very strong building. We are going to have to move all these animals into the building and then load them in. You don’t want to make a building where you can’t roll sharks down a hallway.”
$90 million and counting
Such an ambitious project requires a successful capital campaign. Michael Moore, Mote special advisor to the office of the president, is leading the charge to raise the $110 million required by the county to kick in the last $20 million. Last October, Mote reported it had reached the $90 million milestone, with another announcement planned this fall.
Moore, who has four decades of capital campaign experience, indicated substantial fund-raising success since last fall's announcement, opting not to piecemeal updates as donations come in. News of last week’s closing on the site, he said, has accelerated the pace of contributions as donors see tangible evidence of progress.
“This kind of money has never been raised for one single project in this region.” Moore said. "The base is accelerating with prospective donors as they see the project starting to materialize. When it comes out of the ground in a few months, we know that's going to help us work toward the goal. We continue to gain momentum. We've had nothing but a positive outlook for the future with this effort and the community has responded in kind.”
Even when the $110 million goal has been reached, Moore said fundraising will continue.
“You always have the additional needs, and if it gets us another $3 million to $5 million beyond the goal, we’ll keep raising money as long as there’s interest,” he said. “I always say as long as you have prospects, keep raising money because everybody's going to want to be a part of it.”
Location, location, location
Despite the bargain price of the site, Mote SEA will enjoy the advantages of a prime location. Just a few of hundred feet from I-75 at the University Parkway exit that leads to Lakewood Ranch to the east and the Mall at University Town Center and Nathan Benderson Park to the west, the unique structure will have high visibility to an estimated 52 million vehicles a year.
Mote SEA will be accessible from both the University Parkway and Fruitville Road exits, in stark contrast to the aquarium’s current location on City Island between Lido and Longboat keys. There, it still managed to draw some 350,000 visitors a year.
“There's a lot of synergy between all of this,” Bebak said. “Benderson Development has been a great partner and (the Nathan Benderson Park Conservancy) has been a great partner. We meet regularly on scheduling so that we're not stepping on each other during construction, and also planning what what the future holds.”
What it holds, Bebak said, is a destination location between activities at NBP, shopping and dining at UTC, the recently opened Pop Stroke miniature golf center, and visitors and special events at Mote SEA.
“That area is becoming a draw in itself,” Bebak said. “I think you're going to see more out there — more development, more things for people to do, hotels and so on, so we're very happy to be kind of in the center of that and to work with everybody there to to benefit residents and visitors alike.”
Consultants to Mote have estimated the new aquarium will draw 600,000 to 700,000 visitors in its first year of operation, doubling its current turnstile count.