County Commission underscores support for Mote aquarium project at Benderson Park, including potential sale of 9 acres to the nonprofit

Board members voice concerns about how a proposed Charter amendment would hamper a property transaction

A rendering shows the design of the new Mote Aquarium and science center at Benderson Park. Image from CambridgeSeven for Mote

The Sarasota County Commission made it clear this week that it wants to sell or lease part of its land at Nathan Benderson Park to Mote Marine Laboratory, so the nonprofit can construct a $130-million aquarium on the site.

The commissioners also made it clear that they fear passage of a proposed Sarasota County Charter amendment in November would prevent them from selling the approximately 9 acres to Mote, even if that proved the more feasible option.

As a result, they have asked the Office of the County Attorney to draw up a resolution expressing their support of a sale to Mote as an option, in advance of the Nov. 6 election.

During their Sept. 11 discussion, they voiced hope that County Administrator Jonathan Lewis could reach Michael P. Crosby, president and CEO of Mote, before their Sept. 12 meeting, to learn if the nonprofit indeed would be interested in purchasing the property. However, no further mention of the issue arose before the board adjourned its regular session on Sept. 12.

During an Aug. 9 meeting, Mote representatives asked county staff members to separate the nonprofit’s request for use of the land at Benderson Park from its request for funding assistance for the aquarium, Nicole Rissler, deputy director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, explained to the board this week. “They communicated to us that the urgency of that land decision was to allow for private fundraising,” she said, including the potential of seeking money from the Legislature during its 2019 session.

A rendering shows the proposed Great Hall in the new aquarium. Image from CambridgeSeven for Mote

The commissioners took three votes altogether during their regular meeting on Sept. 11 in regard to the Mote aquarium plan. First, they approved a motion made by Commissioner Michael Moran — at staff’s request — authorizing staff to continue working with Mote on a Benderson Park site for the new facility.

The second motion — also made by Moran — supported separating Mote’s request for use of the land from the its request for financial assistance.

“I think it makes absolute sense,” Commissioner Charles Hines said of dividing the two issues.

Then Hines asked Rissler whether Mote is interested only in a lease.

“In the letters so far,” she replied, “they have requested a long-term land lease.”

“Maybe a little more openness from Mote” would help, Hines said.

“We have made clear to them in allof our discussions,” County Administrator Jonathan Lewis pointed out, that the commission is willing to consider a sale as well as a lease. “They have not pushed back on the actual conveyance of the property and said, ‘No,’” Lewis added.

In regard to the funding aspect of the request, Commissioner Paul Caragiulo said, “This board … has been very receptive to the idea of financially participating, provided we’re the last in …” That commitment, he pointed out, should be useful to Mote in its fundraising efforts.

During her presentation prior to the votes, Rissler also pointed out that county staff has hired a consultant — at board direction — to undertake an independent review of the business plan Mote has prepared for the aquarium project. That review will take about six to eight weeks, she added; staff anticipates having the final report from the consultant in early October.

Rissler further reminded the board members this week about the timeline reflecting Mote’s outreach to the county.

The first letter from Mote, dated March 5, asked County Administrator Lewis and his staff to begin discussions about the project with Mote’s leadership. On March 13, the County Commission discussed the letter, Rissler continued.

Then, on March 30, Mote sent another letter to Lewis, which contained a preliminary site plan for the aquarium and requested “an exclusive lease agreement,” she added. On May 17, Mote sent yet another letter to Lewis, Rissler noted. That one requested not only a long-term lease but also $20 million to help pay for the aquarium.

Additionally, Rissler pointed out this week that county staff members have been looking into future infrastructure needs, as well as any impacts a transaction with Mote might have on existing county agreements involving Benderson Park. Among the latter, she indicated, is the agreement with the Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates (SANCA), which manages Benderson Park.

More focus on a resolution

A map shows the proposed location of the aquarium at Benderson Park. Image courtesy of Mote

Following the first two votes, Commissioner Alan Maio asked if his colleagues were interested in taking a vote on directing the Office of the County Attorney “to sturdy this up” in regard to a formal resolution on the land deal.

“No!” Detert responded, pointing out that the commissioners had just taken the votes to make its continued support clear. “What am I missing here?”

Maio referenced Hines’ earlier comments about the proposed Charter amendment.

The Nov. 6 referendum results from a Sarasota County Charter petition drive organized by Siesta Key resident Michael Cosentino. Voters will be asked if they want to add the following section to the county Charter: “Preserve County-Owned Parks, Preserves, Beach and Water Access and Waterfront Vistas. The County shall not sell, and shall retain ownership of, County-owned Parks and Preserves, and shall not vacate or sell County-owned road segments or rights of way along orabutting any beach, river, creek, canal, lake, bay, gulf access or waterfront vista. The Countyshall encourage maximum right of way use for public access and viewing of waterfront vistas. Whenever feasible, the County shall make these areas accessible to mobility impaired persons.”

Maio explained that county property owners pay an additional 0.25 mills a year, which provides the county revenue for acquisition of future parkland and environmentally sensitive lands. Sometimes, Maio said, when the county pursues such land deals, it has to buy more property than it wants for a specific purpose. That is because the owner will not break up the land into segments; for the county, it becomes a matter of buying all or nothing. Then, Maio continued, the board ends up selling the property it did not want at the outset.
“I really am concerned,” he added, about Cosentino’s proposed amendment. “Our hands would be tied.”

“I just thought that a resolution … exactly demonstrating our intentions [regarding the land for the Mote aquarium] … gets out in front [of that proposed Charter amendment],” Maio added.

“I think it’s too early,” County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh responded. “While you could pass a resolution, there hasn’t been enough of the deal [with Mote] put together to really say much about it, other than you’d be willing to negotiate for a transfer of the land.”

A chart shows the timeline of communications from Mote to county staff. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“Maybe we should direct Mr. Lewis to reach out to Mote,” Caragiulo suggested. If Lewis could get more information from Mote by the next day — when the board would hold its next regular meeting — then the commissioners could conduct further discussion of the resolution, Caragiulo added.

“Why wouldn’t you want to own the property instead of [having] a lease?” Commissioner Hines asked. Perhaps Mote leaders initially felt that asking for a lease was the appropriate approach to the county, Hines said.

If an entity leases land from the county, he continued, so many details have to be worked out. “Why would they ever want to come back to us and ask, ‘Can I paint the building?’” Hines added as an example. “I say, ‘Mote, get back to us.’”

Detert suggested that the board could address a resolution during an October meeting, before the Nov. 6 election.

After further comments from Commissioners Moran and Detert, Maio said, “Maybe I wasn’t clear enough. … I want more meat here, so that if the sale comes [after the November election], nobody’s going to say that we sprung it on them.”

Caragiulo asked whether Maio was proposing a motion. If so, Caragiulo said he would second it. The resolution, he added, “might be excessive, but why not?”

Then Maio made the motion, and Caragiulo seconded it.

“I think the staff gets what we want in the resolution,” Detert said right before the 5-0 vote approving the motion. “Time is of the essence.”