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Sunday, May 27, 2018
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A project too big and a vote too soon

Clearwater voters will have a chance Nov. 5 to decide whether a plan to build a 200,000-square-foot aquarium on prime downtown property should move forward or be halted in its tracks.

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium wants to capitalize on the phenomenal popularity of Winter the dolphin by building a three-story facility along the bluff where City Hall now sits.

The plan’s backers say as many as 2 million people may visit annually, and they promise to give the city $7.5 million to build a new City Hall. The risk to Clearwater’s taxpayers is being mitigated with federal and state grants, tourist bed-tax dollars, special taxing district revenues, and private donations to cover the estimated $160 million cost. No city funds are being committed.

But first, voters must give their blessing for the city to lease public land for use as an aquarium site.

We think voters should reject the request. We support expanding the marina, which focuses on marine life rescue, but we find the plan to be overly ambitious and overly optimistic. And we don’t understand why voters are being rushed to make a key vote before a feasibility study is completed.

Supporters like to point out that a successful vote Nov. 5 does not signal a green light to build. There would remain significant financial hurdles to overcome, and the City Council would have the final say.

But Nov. 5 is the only chance the public has to vote on a project that will define downtown Clearwater for generations. Stripped to its core, the plan is staking the city’s downtown future on the star power of a dolphin and on the chance that appeal will endure for decades beyond its eventual death.

The plan’s primary backers — former Clearwater mayor Frank Hibbard and Clearwater Marine Aquarium executives Frank Dame and David Yates — should be applauded for crafting a plan that minimizes the city’s financial exposure. Understandably, they want to strike while a sequel to the feature film about Winter is in the works, and a possible animated TV series is under consideration.

Winter’s story of triumph over long odds turned the moribund Clearwater Marine Aquarium into a tourist destination that drew about 750,000 visitors last year, up from about 250,000 before Winter. There were more visitors than could be accommodated in the former sewage treatment plant on Island Estates where the Clearwater Marine Aquarium has operated for decades.

But consistently drawing even the 1 million visitors a year needed for the proposed aquarium to break even seems implausible, considering the 18-year-old Florida Aquarium in Tampa has never drawn that many and will continue to operate in direct competition with the new aquarium.

Without question, Winter deserves a home that maximizes revenues. A new or expanded facility is needed, one that emphasizes the unique rescue, rehabilitation and release aspect that has been the aquarium’s primary mission from the start. If that’s not possible on the current site and the City Hall land is wanted for a scaled-down version of the current plan, aquarium officials should return in a year with financial commitments and a feasibility study in hand.

Downtown Clearwater struggles with its identity as a Church of Scientology headquarters. The allure of building a centerpiece attraction that could change that identity and promote commerce is appealing.

But the proposed aquarium is too large, and its long-term success is far from assured.

The plan’s backers have put together a thoughtful proposal with the best of intentions. But we find the project too ambitious and the vote premature. We recommend a “no” vote.

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