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Clearwater Aquarium’s expansion plans could affect Tampa Aquarium

CLEARWATER - The Clearwater Marine Aquarium projects as many as 2.5 million people could visit the expanded attraction it wants to build in downtown Clearwater, placing it among the nation’s top aquariums — on par with the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta and the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. With aquarium officials looking for a significant investment of tax dollars in their $160 million project, there are serious questions about whether the attraction can meet those expectations. The Clearwater facility would be about 200,000 square feet, slightly bigger than the already struggling Florida Aquarium in Tampa, which has about 150,000 square feet. The proposal is raising questions about whether the region can support two large aquariums, something industry experts say would be highly unusual. “Many aquariums open with a great response,” said David Robison, an economist who specializes in entertainment venues. “But attendance falls substantially the next few years unless the aquarium offers something particularly interesting and readily visible for visitors.”
Clearwater aquarium officials say they have that in Winter, the dolphin the aquarium rescued and fitted with a prosthetic tail. Winter’s story was recounted in the 2011 movie “Dolphin Tale,” which was filmed at the aquarium, a small former wastewater treatment plant near Clearwater Beach. Since the movie was released, attendance has skyrocketed, going from 200,000 to 750,000 last year. That’s 100,000 more than The Florida Aquarium. “We have national awareness, which is a big, big difference from us and any aquarium that’s starting from scratch,” said David Yates, the Clearwater aquarium’s CEO. The Florida Aquarium appears concerned about the Clearwater aquarium’s growth plans. This month, officials from the Tampa aquarium attended a Clearwater City Council meeting and warned against putting too much faith in early attendance and revenue projections. Tampa aquarium officials expected 1.8 million visitors a year when it opened in 1995. But 18 years later, the facility has never surpassed 1 million a year. It had 650,000 visitors last year. It’s the rare aquarium that can draw the types of crowds that were projected in Tampa and now are being promised in Clearwater, said Robison, an economist at LaSalle University in Philadelphia whose daughter attended Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. “Only about 10 or 12 aquariums generate attendance in excess of 1 million people per year,” Robison said. The 8-year-old Georgia Aquarium drew 2.1 million visitors last year, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which opened in 1984, had 1.8 million people. The Tampa Bay area’s demographics give Clearwater Aquarium officials confidence that the facility they hope to open in 2017 can exceed 2 million visitors in its first year. The eight-county area around Tampa Bay has a similar population size and demographics to Atlanta, where the Georgia Aquarium has been a big success, Yates said. The aquarium also has made inroads with the 41 million tourists who come to Orlando every year, who see ads telling families it’s only a 90 minute drive to stay at the beach and see Winter. The Clearwater aquarium now ranks second only to Busch Gardens among Tampa Bay area attractions, according to the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. The Clearwater Aquarium’s spike in attendance has been driven largely by out-of-state visitors coming specifically because of “Dolphin Tale,” Yates said. That suggests Clearwater isn’t necessarily taking visitors away from The Florida Aquarium 28 miles away in Tampa, where attendance peaked in 2007 at 675,000. “We’re a different experience,” Yates said. “Our mission is different, and the experience we’re going to give guests is entirely different. “I think we actually complement each other very much.” Clearwater Aquarium officials want to build a three-story building in the middle of downtown Clearwater, where City Hall now sits. To do that, they need the permission of city leaders, who this month voted to put the question before voters in November. The aquarium is seeking a no-cost 60-year lease on the property, which overlooks the Intracoastal Waterway. To fund the project, aquarium officials plan to seek private donations, borrow $60 million and hope to get $35 million to $60 million in public money that would come from city tax increment financing, county bed tax dollars and federal grants. Amid a stream of people praising the aquarium’s plan at the March 7 Clearwater City Council meeting, Florida Aquarium Board Chairman Doug Montgomery urged caution, recounting his center’s financial struggles over the years. The project’s planned $50 million in debt ballooned to $84 million by the time it was finished, Montgomery said. The city of Tampa assumed that debt in 1996 and still is paying it off. The city also gives the aquarium an annual subsidy of $486,000, down from $1.1 million a decade ago. Last year, The Florida Aquarium had $18 million in income and $13 million in expenses. Officials there are working on their own 9,000-square-foot expansion for special events. Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos interrupted Montgomery’s comments, saying they were off-topic during a meeting about a voter referendum. But Florida Aquarium President Thom Stork denied that Montgomery was trying to head off potential competition across the bay. “That’s simply not the case,” Stork said. “We completely respect what the Clearwater Marine Aquarium is trying to do.” Clearwater Marine Aquarium has a strong financial track record since Winter arrived, with revenues jumping from $8 million to $21 million between 2011 and 2012. While aquarium officials are hoping for 2.5 million visitors at the new building, they only need about 950,000 to break even financially, about 200,000 more people than last year, Yates said. Experts say offering visitors a unique animal or experience is a key to success for any zoo or aquarium. Posters for the Georgia Aquarium tout its massive whale sharks, while the Monterey Bay Aquarium boasts a 28-foot-deep kelp forest, a giant octopus and an open-sea exhibit that showcases the variety of marine life in the region. “You pick what distinguishes you and then you become specialized in that and you let the world know it,” said Stephen Fuller, a development professor at George Mason University who writes an annual report on the economics of animal attractions for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. So far, the Clearwater Aquarium’s fame has been driven by a single animal, and that’s risky, said Robison, the LaSalle University economist. “The various aquariums around the country, they try to have eight to 10 stars,” Robison said. “You don’t want to have just one star, because that animal can die.” He pointed to the Berlin Zoological Garden in Germany, which saw its attendance double or triple thanks to Knut, a baby polar bear that became an Internet sensation. As soon as Knut grew out of his cute-and-cuddly phase, though, attendance plummeted. As a parallel to Winter, Clearwater Aquarium officials point to the original dolphin celebrity, Flipper. Flipper continues to bring visitors to Miami’s Seaquarium almost 50 years after the first episode of the popular TV series was filmed, though he’s hardly made the aquarium a world-class attraction. The Seaquarium draws an average of 500,000 people a year, but it mostly markets to travelers who come to the Miami area for other reasons. “Unlike Disney or Universal, people don’t come to Miami just to see the Miami Seaquarium,” said the aquarium’s chief marketing officer, Eric Eimstad. The Seaquarium’s Flipper show, set in a lagoon built in the 1960s, still draws tourists, many from Germany, where the show is in syndication, he said. Flipper’s popularity spurred the creation of the lagoon and the stadium seating that surrounds it, but the Seaquarium didn’t leverage the dolphin star for expansion. Of course, the dolphin that performs today isn’t the original Flipper and, in fact, several dolphins played the role of Flipper while the show was being filmed. Winter would be difficult to replace because her prosthetic tail is integral to her story. She’s currently seven years old, and dolphins can live 20 to 40 years or more, Yates said. But Winter wouldn’t be the only draw at the new aquarium. Officials are already promoting the story of Hope, another dolphin rescued the same night “Dolphin Tale” finished filming. The long-term plan is to capitalize on the aquarium’s mission as an animal rescue center by engaging visitors with the personal stories of each creature, Yates said. “We’re building a family of well-known animals,” he said.

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