Commissioner Brody lays blame for Mote aquarium decision on shoulders of city manager

Feb. 20 exchanges at one point prompt mayor’s reminder about city’s code of conduct for meetings

City Commissioner Hagen Brody (third from left) tells City Manager Tom Barwin (second from right) to let him finish making a point. News Leader photo

At one point on Feb. 20, during a 41-minute City Commission discussion of Mote Marine’s proposed new $130-million aquarium at Nathan Benderson Park, Sarasota Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie had to bang the gavel several times and remind everyone about the code of conduct for the city’s public meetings.

Several times, Commissioner Hagan Brody accused City Manager Tom Barwin of failing to engage with the leaders of Mote Marine in an effort to keep the aquarium in the city limits. Brody also said he “couldn’t get [Barwin] to understand … [that] this is a different commission” than the body in 2014 that voted 3-2 not to provide a letter of endorsement in response to Mote’s request that it be allowed to build a new aquarium on part of the city’s Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall parking lot, which is at on the bayfront.

“The voters chose to go a different direction with this commission,” Brody added, referring to the May 2017 election that put him and Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch on the board.

Barwin responded that he was unaware of any city commission that takes a new vote on every issue after new members are seated. “It’s a unique concept. It would make for many long evenings.”

The potential that “one of the biggest assets to the city” would relocate to a county location “should have been brought up” either to the full commission or to the board members in one-on-one meetings with Barwin, Brody continued.

It was only about three weeks ago that Brody finally had agreed to meet with him on a weekly basis to discuss city issues, Barwin pointed out. “Your schedule was apparently too busy to do that [prior to that time].”

“I don’t meet with you because I don’t trust you,” Brody replied. “I want to be clear about that.”

Mote plans an aquarium of this design at Nathan Benderson Park. Rendering provided by CambridgeSeve

At another point, Brody told Barwin, “This was a complete shock to me, and I believe it was to you,” referring to the Feb. 8 news about Mote’s plans. Brody added that Barwin was “frantically calling us the day before this announcement was being made.”

Whenever he learns that a major announcement will be made, Barwin explained, “it’s a standard operating protocol [to inform the commissioners].” His calls about the Mote news, he said, were merely “to make sure you were ahead of the curve.”

Brody also noted an earlier remark Barwin had made about Mote representatives not having approached Barwin to ask him to facilitate discussions with the Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization (SBPO). Barwin is the city’s appointee to the SBPO, which has hired a Massachusetts firm to solicit community views and then produce a master plan for the city’s bayfront property.

Barwin tried to respond, but Brody raised his voice and told Barwin, “Can you let me finish, please!”

That was when Freeland Eddie brought down the gavel. Reading from the code of conduct, she said, “We will be respectful of one another” and “[we] will not raise our voices over each other and let people answer questions.”

The interlude came more than 30 minutes after Brody told his colleagues he had asked for the Mote discussion to be put on the Feb. 20 agenda because “losing Mote Marine … is a huge blow, in my opinion, to the city.”

The aquarium on City Island draws about 300,000 visitors a year, he continued, and many of them shop in stores and dine in restaurants in Sarasota.

“My desire and the desire of a lot of people that have reached out to me … is that we need to try to do more to keep them in the City of Sarasota.”

City Manager Tom Barwin. Photo courtesy City of Sarasota

Barwin explained early during the Feb. 20 discussion that the City Commission also voted 5-0 on Oct. 20, 2014 to encourage Mote’s leaders to participate in the community discussions about the future of the bayfront. At that time, the Bayfront 20:20 organization was leading those efforts.

“To my knowledge,” Barwin said, “Mote has not approached the Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization to review that [2014] request for a commitment” to be included in the master plan.

Mote representatives have made it clear, Barwin continued, that the constraints of the City Island property they lease from the city for $1 per year necessitated their search for a new location for the aquarium. However, he said, they remain committed to expanding their facilities into a “world-class marine science center” on that city-owned site in Ken Thompson Park. “[That] seems to be among their highest priorities.”

Michael Crosby, president and CEO of Mote, also had advised him, Barwin said, that the city’s bayfront property “is constrained.” Mote’s research and feasibility studies pointed to the Benderson Park location, which is close to Interstate 75, as the optimal one, Barwin added.

He had heard that Mote representatives had considered sites as far away as Fort Myers, Barwin pointed out.

Crosby’s Feb. 8 announcement explained that the Benderson Park location would enable Mote to build a facility with 110,000 square feet of space and 1 million gallons of exhibit water, which would be more than double the size of the Mote Aquarium on City Island. He also noted the expectation that the nonprofit could draw nearly 700,000 visitors in its opening year.

Vice Mayor Liz Alpert. News Leader photo

Vice Mayor Liz Alpert stood up for Barwin after Brody’s outburst. “I’m going to take exception to the attacks on the city manager and making the city manager responsible for these decisions.”
She added, “I think that Mote made its decision based on what was going to work best. .. I would have loved Mote to be on our bayfront, but in building an aquarium the size that they’re building … that probably would be problematic [in downtown Sarasota].”

“We can’t tell Mote where to go,” Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch said, prompting a chuckle from Commissioner Willie Shaw.

In 2014, Shaw noted, the SBPO had not even been established. Discussions about the future of the 42 acres of city-owned bayfront property focused on a number of issues then, he added, including potential new venues for the Sarasota Orchestra and a new performing arts hall. “Mote had the opportunity to go back to the SBPO,” Shaw said.

Characterizing the plans for the new aquarium as a failure of the City Commission, Shaw told Brody, “is false. … A review of those meetings would show a far different direction.”

Doubling down

“This is a competition to keep these city assets in the city of Sarasota,” Brody said early in the discussion. “As a city manager, I fully expect you — someone who has 600 staff members at your disposal — to insert yourselves in these conversations and know when something this big is happening to the City of Sarasota, to the economy of Sarasota.”

Brody added, “I am going to do everything I can to bring [Mote] back to the table, to talk about being a fixture on the bayfront for decades to come.”

Brody then pointed out that he believes a city manager has “hard functions, if you will,” such as ensuring the utilities and the police department operate smoothly. “But it’s also a requirement, in my mind, that you are advocating, that you … have some sort of vision yourself about the future of this community … and that you are being proactive in implementing it.”

“We cannot sit here and say, ‘They never approached us,’” Brody continued.

Barwin then reminded Brody that the minutes of the City Commission’s Oct. 20, 2014 meeting also noted a third vote related to Mote: “A motion was made by Commissioner [Shannon] Snyder, seconded by Vice Mayor [Susan] Chapman, and carried by a 3-2 vote to direct the Administration not to place any items concerning the interest of organizations in locating on the City-owned property on the Bayfront until the Bayfront 20:20 initiative process has been concluded …”

In July 2017, the Sarasota Bay Planning Organization featured this graphic on its website, showing the city-owned acreage on the bayfront and other property that potentially could be incorporated into the master plan. Image from the SBPO

“Your city manager and your city staff followed that direction right down the middle of the road,” Barwin told Brody.

Barwin also pointed out that Mote plans to employ 200 people altogether on City Island to work on climate change and other issues, after it expands its research facilities. “We have worked intensively to do everything we can to make sure that that will happen,” Barwin said, “and that will be a great thing for our community.”

Moreover, Barwin continued, if Mote, through exhibits at the new aquarium, “can educate 700,000 people a year or a million people a year, we’re all much better off in terms of … advancing public policies and environmental policies” to protect the Gulf of Mexico and Sarasota Bay.

Still, Barwin said, if the commissioners wanted to direct staff to “put the sales job on Mote … that’s what we’ll be doing.” Nonetheless, Barwin added of Mote representatives, “They are in charge of their destiny, and that’s a mature way to look at it.”

Commissioner Ahearn-Koch then talked of the general knowledge that Mote was going to outgrow the City Island space.

“I am very excited that Mote will be hiring more researchers,” she said. That will broaden employment opportunities in the community, she noted, and lead to economic growth.

Barwin told the commissioners that he and other staff members have been working “behind the scenes” with Mote’s leadership on the plans for expanding the City Island research facilities. He also stressed that Mote plans to keep its operations there open to the public.

Brody’s final comment was that he was not seeking for a motion that day. “I hope that at some point,” he continued, the board will be discussing a reversal of Mote’s decision — that the new aquarium will be built within the city limits.