CLEARWATER — Winter the dolphin and her cohorts at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium won over a decisive majority of voters in a referendum Tuesday on leasing the City Hall property to build a $160-million downtown aquatic center.
The amendment to the city charter passed by a margin of 1,672 votes, with 9,373 people, or 55 percent, voting to approve the measure, according to the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections office.
Most residents had made up their minds before polls even opened, with 13,490 of the 17,074 votes registered – 79 percent – cast as absentee ballots.
The results go against a long history of voters rejecting referendums to develop the city’s waterfront. The amendment modifies the city charter to allow City Council to enter a proposed 60-year lease with the aquarium.
A preliminary deal calls for the aquarium to repay the city $7.5 million plus interest over time to replace the aging City Hall, followed by annual payments of $250,000.
“I think people respect what we do and how we’ve done this and how we’ve grown in the last few years,” said David Yates, the aquarium’s CEO.
“We have many, many steps to get accomplished in this project, and this is just Step 1.”
Yates was joined Tuesday night by other aquarium officials, volunteers and city council members at the Island Way Grill restaurant on Island Estates, next door to the aquarium — a former water treatment plant whose attendance exploded after the 2011 release of the “Dolphin Tale” movie, based around the story of Winter’s remarkable rescue and rehabilitation there.
Among them was Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos, who cheered the results of Tuesday’s vote. Several months of sometimes contentious debate over the aquarium’s plans helped residents gain a better grasp of how the lease process will go forward, he said.
“I think the vast majority of people understood that if the aquarium doesn’t raise the money, the new facility will not be built,” Cretekos said.
Under a nonbinding memorandum of understanding between the aquarium and the city, the aquarium must raise all necessary funds by Aug. 1, 2016. If aquarium leaders don’t meet that goal, the deal is off.
The agreement also dictates that no general fund tax money will be used toward the construction of the proposed 200,000-square-foot center, though aquarium officials plan to seek several million dollars in county bed tax dollars and tax-increment financing.
Opponents of the aquarium deal, such as downtown resident Joe Corvino, fear that City Council members will soften the aquarium lease terms to help the project succeed now that the only public vote is behind them.
“The big fear is the city is heavily vested in making this thing succeed, so they will concede a lot of points to the CMA,” said Corvino, who headed up a political action committee opposing the aquarium deal.
City officials will hold numerous public hearings as the aquarium begins raising funds and defining the specifics of the lease, Cretekos said. The City Council will hold the aquarium to the proposed lease terms, he said.
“I’m confident we’re going to hold the aquarium to those points, if not some others,” he said.
Over the past few months, supporters such as aquarium board member and former Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard argued the project would be an economic driver for a downtown that has struggled to sustain shops and restaurants over the years.
Detractors questioned the project’s viability and opposed transferring a prime piece of public land into the hands of the nonprofit aquarium. Downtown resident Tom Petersen sued the city and the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections over the wording of the referendum and for attempting to move the land out of public control.
Voters have had a history of rejecting proposals to develop the city’s public waterfront, including a multimillion-dollar proposal for Coachman Park in 2000 that would have turned the land over to developers for 99 years at an annual rate of $1.
Tuesday’s vote reversed that trend, with aquarium officials saying that the wild success of “Dolphin Tale” that had brought international attention to a small marine rescue center would mean droves of tourists coming to an expanded downtown attraction.
A sequel to the popular family movie is being filmed at the aquarium, with plans for a 2014 release date.