Approval of array of county agreements clears way for Mote Marine Aquarium project at Benderson Park

County Commission and Mote CEO praise staffs for quick completion of lease and sale documents

A rendering shows plans for the layout of the new Mote Science Education Aquarium at Benderson Park. Image courtesy Mote Marine

First came an abundance of plaudits for Sarasota county staff members and representatives of Mote Marine. Then the County Commission on Jan. 30 voted unanimously to approve an omnibus agreement with the Sarasota-based nonprofit that has been crafted to lead to the construction of a $130-million aquarium and science center at Nathan Benderson Park.

“This is definitely a memorable day for Sarasota County,” Commissioner Michael Moran said. Not only is the aquarium expected to boost the area economy, he added, but its location near University Parkway will enable Mote to expand its research facilities on City Island in Sarasota. “The backbone of Mote Marine Laboratory is the science and research …”

The nonprofit’s plans will lead to an expanded county workforce, as well, Moran pointed out, noting that workforce attraction and development has been a major focus of the board.

A map shows the area where the new aquarium is planned at Benderson Park, including stormwater ponds and Cattlemen Road. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A graphic provides details about the areas involved in the Mote Aquarium project at Nathan Benderson Park. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Commissioner Nancy Detert made the motion to approve the overarching agreement for Mote first to lease 11.45 acres at Benderson Park and ultimately to purchase the property. Both the annual rent and the sale price have been put at $100.

As she has in the past, Detert on Jan. 30 again talked of the “huge ‘wow’ factor from the minute [Mote] rolled [the proposal out].”

Assistant County Administrator Brad Johnson explained facets of the agreement to the board. Among them, Mote will enter into an initial two-year lease with the county, during which time it can apply for the rezoning of the park site and other necessary changes to enable the aquarium project to move forward.

Provided Mote ends up purchasing the property, it would have 24 months to begin construction of the aquarium and 42 months for completion. Reversionary clauses calls for the property to go back to the county if those terms are not met.

Additionally, Mote would not be able to transfer or convey the property to another party, Johnson noted, unless that entity were a wholly owned Mote subsidiary.

A rendering by the CambridgeSeven firm shows the exterior of the aquarium. Image courtesy Mote Marine

Full proof of funding for the aquarium also would be necessary, Johnson stressed, before the land could be sold to Mote or — if the parties ended up in a long-term lease arrangement — before construction could commence. Documentation of that funding could come in the form of a loan or construction completion bonds, for examples, the construction agreement explains.

Mote began raising money last year for the new aquarium. It has asked the commission for a $20-million contribution, but the board has yet to offer a formal response to that request.

The omnibus document, Detert said, “almost seems offensive, it’s so nitpicky.” However, she pointed out, that was necessary “for the protection of the public.” She added, “We want to anticipate everything, so that there are no hiccups later on.”

Returning again to the aquarium itself, Detert said, “I feel it’s going to be so startlingly impressive that we’ll probably have to put a scenic overlook on I-75, because people are going to say, ‘What is that?’ and want to pull over.”

Commissioner Alan Maio, who seconded Detert’s motion, pointed to the accolades county staff had given Mote Marine and its team, including Mote’s legal staff. “Maybe more importantly to us, [the Mote team members] just gave our staff glowing remarks.”

Chair Charles Hines had invited Michael Crosby, Mote’s president and CEO, to the podium for comments prior to the vote. “The county staff have just been marvelous to work with,” Crosby said. “There was a great collegial effort. … We all have a shared interest in doing what’s right for the people of this county.”

These are the facets of the motion the County Commission approved on Jan. 30, at county staff’s recommendation. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Crosby added, “We are grateful that the commissioners have enthusiastically embraced this vision that we have … for a new economic driver for this community and for our region.”
The aquarium will help both with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math] education for the nearly 70,000 students from kindergarten through high school in the area, he pointed out, while it also will focus on STEM workforce development.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler talked of the importance the aquarium will play in education. “It starts when they’re young,” he said, noting that he has daughters who are 5 and 3. Teaching children, he continued, “[is] when you get the commitment to the environment; that’s when you get the commitment to clean water.”

Diving into the details

Assistant County Administrator Johnson pointed out that on Oct. 9, 2018, the commission approved a resolution supporting the aquarium project; then, on Oct. 24, 2018, the board approved a “term sheet” outlining the basic facets of the proposed agreement for the Benderson Park property to be conveyed to Mote.

These are the terms that would apply if the county and Mote ended up in a long-term lease. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The process will entail negotiations on easements between the Mote team and Benderson Development Co., the Southwest Florida Water Management District and Florida Power & Light Co. Mote also will have to work out details of the project with the Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates (SANCA), which manages Benderson Park for the county, Johnson explained.

Mote’s due diligence is expected to take from six to 15 months, Johnson said.

Providing the nonprofit works through all the necessary steps, he continued, the county would approve the two-year lease for the site with the option of an accompanying agreement allowing Mote to begin construction on a parking lot on the western side of the site.

During the period of the lease, he said, Mote’s team would work with county staff on the planned rezoning of the property from Government Use to a district appropriate for an aquarium — a recommendation staff made last year.

Before the property could be sold to Mote, Johnson added, Mote would have to show “full proof of funding” for the project. That could come in the form of documentation about the nonprofit’s having secured financing, for example, Johnson said.

If the sale is delayed or halted for some reason, he explained, and Mote wished to enter into a long-term lease with the county, then that lease would be for an initial 40 years, with five, 10-year renewal periods allowed.