CLEARWATER — Residents at Tuesday night’s public forum heard rivaling predictions about Clearwater’s future if voters approve a possible lease for a new $160 million aquarium.
Officials with Clearwater Marine Aquarium described 1 million or more people a year converging on downtown to see movie star dolphin Winter and other marine creatures.
Opponents of the aquarium cast doubt on whether Winter and other aquarium attractions could draw consistent crowds over the course of a 60-year lease and said residents should beware of turning their city hall over to what could be a risky business venture.
More than 100 people came out to the discussion at the Clearwater Community Sailing Center on Gulf Boulevard, held about a month before a Nov. 5 referendum on whether to permit the city to lease the city hall property to the aquarium.
“Winter is a fading phenomenon,” said Tom Petersen, a downtown resident who has filed a lawsuit against the city over the referendum ballot language. “We’re getting something that is undefined, that we don’t know what it will be. They want us to vote yes and they’re sort of saying, ‘Trust me.’”
Aquarium board member and former Clearwater mayor Frank Hibbard told the crowd there are good reasons for voters to trust them.
The aquarium’s construction costs and attendance estimates are based on careful consultation with financial advisers at Raymond James Financial Inc. and designers of the Georgia Aquarium, one of the most successful in the country, Hibbard said.
“We won’t jeopardize our current enterprise by making a bad decision,” Hibbard said, adding that the city won’t approve the lease until the aquarium secures its financing.
The forum, organized by the Sand Key Civic Association, drew a mix of supporters and opponents of the aquarium project, including more than a dozen wearing blue “Vote Yes” T-shirts.
Outside the Sailing Center, yard signs for and against the aquarium illustrated the political debate that’s been happening across the city in recent months.
Business leaders with the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce, like chamber chair Nick DiCeglie, have come out in favor of the aquarium, heading up the political action committee Friends of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
A group of downtown residents leads an opposing PAC called Friends of Clearwater and has sought to persuade residents to vote no.
If residents approve the referendum, the city has the option to offer the lease to the aquarium but isn’t obligated to do so.
Under the terms of a nonbinding memorandum of understanding, the aquarium would pay $7.5 million, plus interest, to build a new city hall, and $250,000 a year after that.
At Tuesday’s forum, Hibbard and aquarium chief operating officer Frank Dame sparred with opponents Petersen and Joe Corvino, both downtown residents.
Forum moderator Steve Baker also took dozens of written questions from the audience that ranged from why the aquarium didn’t choose a different private site for construction to the potential traffic problems that more than a million visitors annually could create downtown.