Clearwater Marine Aquarium move to City Hall site clears first hurdle. Refernedum set for November

CLEARWATER, Fla. - In a unanimous move Tuesday night, Clearwater city leaders are moving forward with an ambition plan to build a world-class Aquarium on the current City Hall site. City Council members voted to move forward with a city referendum on Nov. 5. The council will vote on the final ballot language later this year.

Ever since Hollywood came to Clearwater and made that movie about a dolphin that overcame its lost tail, folks have been flocking to the Marine Aquarium where "Winter" lives.

"Bill, it's amazing," said former Clearwater Mayor and current Board member of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Frank Hibbard.  "Every day we have stories of people coming out to the aquarium and the connection they have."

Connection with the story of a rescue and rehabilitation that became the feel-good movie of 2011 and helped spike attendance at the little Aquarium into unfathomable territory.  Indeed, attendance graphs and license plate evidence in the newly-expanded-yet-packed parking lot suggests that visitors have come here from all over. 

In fact, it became too popular to handle the crowds in addition to the Animal Hospital activities -- the facility is all but maxed out in its current home in Island Estates.  And so the Aquarium Board began a six-month process of looking for another home and crafting a new, bigger building. They called it "Operation Starfish."

"That was our code name over the past several months," said Hibbard.  "Because we certainly have a star mammal. And we were reaching for the stars -- and fishing for money."

And they were bringing the bait to City Council Tuesday night.

"It's the first step," said current Mayor George Cretekos.  He had already heard the pitch from the Aquarium  The proposal is for a 160 million dollar 200,000 square foot facility to house Winter and all her friends right on the site of this City Hall.

The one thing that stood out to me was the question about price that I put to the Mayor. "That 160 million dollars is a jaw dropper?"   

"It is," said Cretekos. "But the Aquarium is confident that once the approval has been given by the residents that it would be able to go out and raise the money."

In fact, Aquarium leaders have insisted that the $160 million is a "cut-down" version of what was originally a project that priced out just north of $250 million when the wish-list items were included. 

They also are adamant that if they don't get the needed funding, they won't go forward -- and the Aquarium will stay in its current location. But they're hoping to strike while the interest in Winter is still keen.

"All of the oness is on the Aquarium," said Frank Hibbard.  "We're asking for the citizens to allow us to go forward."

That decision will be made in November.

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