Details about how Sarasota County potentially could contribute $20 million to Mote Marine’s aquarium project to be focus of staff research

Commissioner Detert voices frustrations about community assumption that board will help pay for the facility

This graphic shows details about the planned site of the Mote Marine aquarium at Benderson Park. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On Sept. 10, Sarasota County Commissioner Al Maio indicated an interest only in helping Mote Marine Laboratory raise all the estimated $130 million it will need to construct a new aquarium and science education center near Benderson Park.

What he immediately heard was disgruntlement from Commissioner Nancy Detert. Because Maio and other board members had mentioned a potential $20-million contribution from the county to Mote, she said, “People in the community all think we committed to $20 million … and now they’re all coming and asking us for $20 million. It’s the most fashionable number of the year.”

Detert was blunt: “I never committed to $20 million.”

She asked, “Who comes up with a $130-million project and expects to be debt-free from Day 1. … There are some other options for them.”

The commissioners themselves finance more than a few of their county projects by borrowing money.

What funding commitments has Mote secured from Manatee County, municipalities in the area and the state, Detert inquired.

After about 12 minutes of discussion, the commissioners unanimously approved a motion by Maio to direct County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to determine, as Maio put it, “where, how much, over what timeline,” $20 million from the county could go to Mote for construction of the aquarium.

Maio and others emphasized that, if they ultimately agreed to it, the contribution would be “last in,” after Mote has raised the remaining $110 million for the project.

Commissioner Michael Moran seconded the motion.

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

Before the vote, Detert asked that Maio agree, as well, to direct staff to provide an opinion regarding the value of the 11.45 acres the county has proposed selling Mote for $100 for the aquarium. (A Jan. 30 agreement the commission approved allows Mote to rent the land for $100 a year, with the goal of the nonprofit’s purchasing it.)

Detert stressed that she did not want a commercial appraisal.

“I’m fine with that,” Maio replied.

‘In limbo’

Initiating the discussion, Maio said he had learned that Mote leaders “feel like they’re in limbo” with their fundraising. “To date,” he said, “they have secured $35 million,” and they believe they will have another $19 million by the end of the year. Altogether, he noted, that is “about the halfway point to $110 million.”

Mote leaders are about to sign two contracts, Maio continued — one for $3 million; the other, for $6 million. Those are to cover expenses associated with due diligence, site analysis and design, he added. “I think we should discuss what is our intention.”

Detert was quick to note that the board members offered their full support of the project on three occasions. (On Jan. 30, they voted unanimously to approve an omnibus agreement with Mote, crafted to lead to the construction of the aquarium on 11.45 acres at Benderson Park.)

“There is a big value to those 11 acres with that kind of traffic visibility,” Detert said, referring to the site’s proximity to Interstate 75.

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

Referencing Maio’s opening remarks on the topic of the county contribution, she asked him, “They keep saying, ‘Oh, [the commissioners] don’t look supportive enough’?”

The value of the 11 acres “most certainly would be an 8-figure number,” Maio replied. “I’ve stressed to them that they need to tell their donors that that was our contribution.”

He added that he also had pointed out that the commission “possibly” would contribute money to the project, emphasizing “possibly.”

“A statement of some sort from us probably would help them,” he continued, with Mote leaders planning a second discussion soon with the Manatee County Commission.

Commissioner Moran pointed out that in the past, he and his colleagues “went to great lengths” to separate the agreement involving the 11 acres from any prospect of a financial contribution. The Jan. 30 vote, he added, “gave them the ability to move forward and show commitment from this board.”

Still, Moran said, “I don’t think it’s an unreasonable request” to have staff look into how the commission could provide $20 million to the project.

Moran pointed out that Mote leaders are looking “around the globe” for potential contributions.

This graphic, presented to the County Commission on Jan. 30, provides details about the omnibus agreement between the county and Mote. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“I don’t ever remember our voting to give them $20 million,” Detert insisted. Yet, because the $20-million figure had been mentioned, other organizations — such as The Bay Sarasota and Selby Gardens — have been asking the commissioners in one-on-one discussions for $20 million, as well, she said.

“I think there was a consensus,” Moran replied, for the commission to provide Mote “the last money” for the aquarium project.

Detert then said she believed Mote leaders should be focusing on trying to win a state grant. If they end up short in their search for funds, she added, then the commissioners could consider what would be financially feasible for the county.

Detert also pointed to the example of Benderson Park. With promised private money having failed to materialize, she said, and Benderson Development Co. representatives having proven unable to secure as much state grant money as they had hoped, the County Commission has ended up putting more money into the park’s operations. “I don’t want to ever see [that kind of situation again],” she stressed.

“I’m not locking myself into a $20-million number,” Detert said.

“We always said … if we give money, then it will be the last money in,” Maio repeated the earlier statements. “That we did say frequently. … Maybe we didn’t say it as exactingly as I believe we did.”