Having received formal ‘proof of funding’ that Mote Marine Lab can pay for Science Education Aquarium at Benderson Park, County Commission approves final steps for project to begin

CPA firm provides letter showing that Mote has about $96 million from cash, pledges and other resources for $116-million project

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

With an abundance of praise for Mote Marine Laboratory and Sarasota County staff, the County Commission this week voted unanimously to approve the sale of 11.45 acres of county land to Mote for the nonprofit’s Science Education Aquarium (SEA) project at Nathan Benderson Park, near University Parkway.

On July 12, the board members also unanimously approved the required “proof of funding” agreement that Mote had provided for county staff, showing that Mote has raised sufficient money to ensure that it can construct the new facility.

Among the documents included in the agenda packet for the commission’s July 12 meeting was a report from Kerkering, Barberio & Co., certified public accountants in Sarasota. The firm concluded that Mote “has the resources, in cash, pledges, governmental commitments and a restricted line of credit to be able to fund $96,237,813 of the not to exceed construction contract of $116,237,813 as of May 31, 2022.”

The letter pointed out that Mote, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, had received 72 pledges of funds, including one “that referred to an intention to contribute $500,000 payable over five years beginning January 15, 2020. We traced the first three pledge payments of $100,000 to the respective bank statements,” the letter continued. “The remaining $200,000 is included in pledges outstanding.”

Further, Kerkering, Barberio & Co. noted that the Sarasota County Commission had pledged $20 million to the Aquarium, while Manatee County had agreed to provide $5 million.

The Sarasota County funds will come out of Tourist Development Tax — or, “bed tax” — revenue, which derives from a 5% tax on rentals of accommodations for six months or less time. That tax will rise to 6% with the Oct. 1 start of the 2023 fiscal year. (See the related article in this issue.)

This is the first page of the Kerkering Barberio & Co. letter providing the ‘proof of funding.’ Image courtesy Sarasota County

Additionally, the letter pointed out that the Sarasota County Commission had indicated that the county funds would be “last in,” after Mote had received all the other pledges. Thus, the county’s $20 million was not included in the “determination of sufficient resources for the purpose of our report,” the letter explained.

Manatee County already has turned over $2 million to Mote, the letter said.

Another document in the agenda packet is a copy of a June 24 letter that the Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. of Tampa sent to Mote staff on June 24. That includes the Guaranteed Maximum Price budget for the vertical construction of the Aquarium, and it notes that Mote and the company executed that price agreement on March 31.

The proof of funding agreement also points out that the commissioners and Mote entered into an omnibus agreement on Jan. 30, 2019 that laid out the steps for Mote to secure the county land and build the Aquarium. Assistant County Administrator Brad Johnson, who has overseen the efforts leading up to the commission action this week, reminded the board members about that when he addressed them on July 12.

A county staff memo in the July 12 agenda packet also reprises facets of that omnibus agreement. Among those, it notes that, on Jan. 29, 2020, Mote “was deemed sufficient in meeting requirements” for the county to execute a short-term lease with it for the Benderson Park site.

This May 2021 graphic shows close-up details about plans for the construction of the Mote Science Education Aquarium at Benderson Park. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Mote has paid $100 a year for the property, as made clear in the terms of the lease.

The omnibus agreement called for the county to sell the acreage to Mote for $100, as well, after Mote achieved the benchmarks laid out in the document.

Both the staff memo and Johnson indicated that the sale of the land to Mote should be concluded within 30 days.

Further, that agreement said that Mote would have 24 months to begin construction of the Aquarium, after it purchased the county land, and it would have 42 months to complete the project.

Two amendments to the omnibus agreement — which the commissioners adopted on Sept. 9, 2020 and March 9 of this year — laid out terms regarding use of a parking lot and allowed Mote to begin moving earth and undertake activities related to drainage infrastructure on the Aquarium site.

Culmination of four years of work

This rendering shows one of the habitats that will be featured in the Mote SEA. Image courtesy Mote Marine

Early on during his July 12 presentation, Johnson pointed out to the commissioners, “This is the culmination of about four years of work …”

“This is just an amazing day for Mote and the citizens of Sarasota County,” Commissioner Michael Moran said after Johnson’s remarks.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler added, “I moved here a little under 20 years ago. I was in my early 20s.” The situation then, he said, “was a little bit rough,” as few amenities seemed targeted to young, single residents. “There’s always been that challenge for families and young people,” Ziegler noted.

In the intervening years, he continued, the county has added a number of amenities designed to attract younger people and families.

As for the Aquarium, Ziegler pointed out, “Pulling it off [City Island west of Lido and St. Armands keys] and putting it over by the [University Town Center]” will make it “a lot more accessible to everyone in the county.”

Moreover, Ziegler cited the education element of the Aquarium, which “doesn’t get discussed enough.”

“The Aquarium is going to be magnificent,” Commissioner Nancy Detert added. “It’ll be a big eye-catcher on [Interstate] 75.”

This slide shows part of the timeline that led to the July 12 action. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“I can’t believe they get as many tourists as they get,” she said, referring to the Mote Aquarium on City Island, “considering … it’s hard to find.”
Detert predicted that “millions of visitors” will come to the new Aquarium after it has been completed.

Further, she pointed out, the relocation of the Aquarium to Benderson Park “frees up the existing [Mote] property for scientific, marine research, and it’s always been my dream that they be the new Woods Hole.” She was referring to the renowned oceanographic institution in Falmouth, Mass.

The expansion of space for research at the City Island location, Detert continued, will facilitate Mote staff’s work on red tide and other environmental issues.

Commissioner Ron Cutsinger singled out Assistant County Administrator Johnson and Deputy County Attorney Josh Moye for his praise. “They’ve done an excellent job,” Cutsinger said, especially given the complex nature of the agreements.

Cutsinger added that Mote is “an incredible treasure for Sarasota County.”

Not only does Mote conduct research on City Island, he pointed out, but it also pursues a considerable amount of scientific work on 200 acres that it owns on Fruitville Road.

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

Before the vote, Commissioner Moran also referenced the early discussions that the board members conducted in response to Mote’s request for county funding support. “Memories get short on this,” Moran said. The board members talked about the “career creation” that is expected to result from the expansion of the City Island research facilities. He predicted that people will be coming “from all over the world” to seek jobs with Mote.

Referring to both the research and new jobs, Moran added, “I’m just super excited to see that evolve over the coming years.”

Chair Alan Maio handed the gavel to Cutsinger, who is the board’s vice chair, so Maio could make the motion to approve the sale of the county land to Mote and the proof of funding agreement.

“If the paperwork is ready,” Maio said, “I’ll sign it at lunch. If not, I’ll come in at any time to sign it.”
He noted that, at the end of this week, the commissioners would begin their four-week summer vacation.