Facility expected to be open to public by Jan. 1, 2025
As Mote Marine Laboratory works toward a December 2024 “soft opening” of its approximately $130-million Science Education Aquarium (Mote SEA), which will be located between the Mall at University Town Center and Nathan Benderson Park, it marked another milestone of sorts this week.
On a unanimous vote on Nov. 14, the Sarasota County commissioners adopted a resolution regarding the issuance of bonds so it can provide a $20-million grant to Mote for the project. The county’s Tourist Development Tax — or “bed tax” — revenue will be pledged to pay back the bonds.
As Kim Radtke, director of the county’s Office of Financial Management, noted during the board’s regular meeting on Nov. 14, the commissioners seated on Jan. 15, 2020, approved a letter of commitment to Mote in regard to the $20 million of support.
Staff would appear before the board at a later date with the grant and bond issuance documents for them to approve, she added.
Commissioner Michael Moran pointed out that the pledge of the county money almost four years ago provided Mote the leverage to request financial support from the Florida Legislature — which, he noted, it had received — and to seek philanthropic contributions for the Aquarium.
In regard to the county’s financial support, Radtke explained that, through discussions years ago between the commissioners and county staff, the decision was made to dedicate 70% of the proceeds from the sixth penny of the county’s Tourist Development Tax to capital improvements and facilities; the Mote SEA was deemed an eligible project to receive funding out of that revenue.
The tax rose from 5% to 6% on Oct. 1, 2022. It is charged on accommodations rented for six months or less time.
Already, Radtke said, $4 million from that portion of the sixth penny’s revenue has been set aside for Mote.
Staff proposes borrowing $16 million to make up the difference, she continued. The scenario staff had developed — shown in a slide —estimated that the interest rate would be 4.75%. However, Radtke pointed out, she had learned just the previous day that “that could go down slightly … by the time we’re ready to borrow.”
Nonetheless, with that 4.75% tax rate, she said, the annual debt service would be about $1.1 million, and the total amount staff expects to have to pay back would be $23,940,000.
Prior to making the motion to adopt the resolution, Commissioner Moran said of the Aquarium, “It was an honor watching this come from a conceptual, visionary discussion, colorful renderings — some would maybe argue wishful thinking.” Anyone who recently has driven by the project site has been able to see how much progress has been made, he added. “It’s just truly amazing.”
Moreover, Moran reminded everyone that, upon completion of the Aquarium, space will be freed up at Mote’s facilities on City Island in Sarasota so it can expand its research. That means Mote will be able to offer “real high-paying jobs,” which, Moran added, he expects will draw applicants from around the world.
Career creation has been one of Moran’s top priorities since he first was elected to the commission in November 2016.
In seconding Moran’s motion, Commissioner Joe Neunder concurred with him in anticipating the future job opportunities on City Island.
Then Neunder prompted laughter when he asked, “Is there going to be swimming with sharks in the main tank? I’m being very serious,” he added.
Kevin Cooper, vice president of Mote for communications and strategic initiatives, who came to the podium to reply, told Neunder, “The short answer is, ‘Yes.’ ” The Aquarium has been designed “to be more immersive” as an educational facility, Cooper continued, not only for the approximately 70,000 students Mote expects to come to the facility every year for free, but also for adults.
Cooper added that the largest exhibit in the Mote SEA will be a 400,000-gallon Gulf of Mexico Shark Conservation Habitat, and people — students and adults who have the proper certification — will be able to dive into that tank.
Regarding students, Cooper pointed out, “There’s no better way to get them educated … than to put them in the water.”
Commissioner Neil Rainford said of the facility, “It’s a gateway to our community. … It’s pretty special.”
Then Chair Ron Cutsinger asked Cooper about the latest timeline for opening the Mote SEA.
Cooper responded that Mote leaders expect to receive the Certificate of Occupancy from the county in August or September 2024. Then he cited the expectation of the soft opening in December 2024, with the facility opening to the public no later than Jan. 1, 2025.