On Feb. 20, City Commission to discuss Mote’s plans for $130-million aquarium at Nathan Benderson Park

Commissioner Brody protests Mote’s proposal, pointing to 2014 plan for bayfront facility

Rendering provided by CambridgeSeven of Cambridge, Mass.

Just hours after Mote Marine President and CEO Michael Crosby announced plans for a new $130-million aquarium on the grounds of Nathan Benderson Park, Sarasota City Commissioner Hagan Brody sent an email to City Manager Tom Barwin and City Auditor and Clerk Pamela Nadalini.

“This is unacceptable,” he wrote of the news. “I immediately want to know:

“1. How long we, the taxpayers of the City of Sarasota, have subsidized the waterfront facility that Mote has used to grow and develop on city owned property leased at $1 per year.

“2. The history with minutes of any prior Commission level discussions regarding this expansion.

“3. All efforts and communications to keep them in the City of Sarasota on the part of staff and why this announcement is a surprise as a city commissioner.”

He added in bold, “Put this on the agenda for the next city commission meeting.

“Mote Marine has done so much for the health of our bay and waterways and built an incredible reputation, program, and body of work with enormous help from the City of Sarasota tax payers,” Brody continued. “That said it’s incomprehensible when it comes time to invest in a facility that will create massive positive economic impact to its surrounding, it’s being done outside of the City of Sarasota.”

At Brody’s request, an agenda item has been scheduled for the board’s Feb. 20 meeting. The discussion is listed under Unfinished Business during the afternoon portion of the meeting, which will begin at 2:30 p.m. at City Hall in downtown Sarasota.

During his remarks at a Feb. 8 press conference, Crosby said the new Mote Science Education Aquarium would “be designed and located strategically to serve a much greater cross-section of residents and visitors in Florida, and enhance ocean literacy opportunities and impacts for all,” as a Mote press release put it.

A rendering shows the proposed new facility in the daytime. Image provided by CambridgeSeven

“Mote leaders have had preliminary discussions with appropriate officials from Sarasota County to understand the potential opportunities for use of approximately 5 acres of county-owned land within Nathan Benderson Park, a highly accessible location in a hotspot of community growth adjacent to Interstate 75,” the release continued. “The interstate’s intersection with University Parkway hosts an average 60,000 drivers on both sides daily, allowing an expected average of 43 million drivers to view Mote’s new facility each year,” the release added. “Mote is now planning to initiate a formal request for a lease to be approved,” the release said.

In response to a Sarasota News Leader request for county comment this week, Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester wrote in a Feb. 14 email, “MOTE is a valued and important part of this community. While they have shared preliminary information about their project, no request or proposal has been provided. Until that time, staff cannot speculate on Sarasota County’s role in their new facility. We look forward to hearing more details.”

Michael Crosby. Image from Mote.org

Mote says the new facility would be funded through a capital construction initiative it has christened Oceans for All: Improving Access to Marine Science & Technology.

“Contingent on progress toward [the fundraising] goal,” the news release added, “Mote leaders aim to begin construction in 2019. The fundraising effort started strong on Feb. 8 with the announcement that commitments for over 20 percent of facility’s total cost have already been made.”

“At Mote Science Education Aquarium, science is the attraction, as it is the heart of our mission,” Crosby said during the press conference. “This spectacular new facility and campus will embody our vision of Oceans for All, doubling the number of visitors whose lives are enriched by marine science each year, and providing no-cost opportunities for all schools to utilize specialized teaching labs to ensure that every child has the opportunity for hands-on marine science and technology experiences.”

Crosby continued, “The oceans are connected to everyone, every place in the world, and our goal is to ignite within each visitor a greater degree of curiosity to learn more about the oceans and their critical value in providing the oxygen we breathe, food, medicine, economic impact and overall quality of our lives.”

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

The aquarium has been designed to have 110,000 square feet of space and 1 million gallons of exhibit water, Mote said in the news release. It will “more than double the size of Mote Aquarium on City Island; expand the ability to feature marine animals and scientific displays from around the world; deepen visitors’ experiences through interactive teaching labs, onsite diving programs, scientific demonstrations and creatively interwoven, interactive technology; and above all, provide informal science education to a larger, more diverse audience.”

The release also pointed out that more than 3 million Florida residents would be able to access the Mote Science Education Aquarium by driving 60 minutes or less, “and the projected visitor number for opening year is near 700,000.”

Mote’s prior vision for a bayfront facility

The backup agenda material for the City Commission’s Feb. 20 meeting includes minutes from the board’s Oct. 20, 2014 session. That day, City Manager Barwin explained that Mote “has been a long-term partner with the City with facilities on City-owned property at Ken Thompson Park,” the minutes say. Mote representatives had asked to be allowed to provide an update to the City Commission that day, Barwin continued. They also wanted to discuss “plans for future growth” and “request the Commission’s consideration of a non-binding letter of support,” the minutes noted.

Mote’s primary facilities in Sarasota are located on City Island. Image courtesy of Mote

During his remarks that day, Crosby sought the commission’s endorsement of a “vision of a 21st Century, state-of-the-art science education center and aquarium to be built and operated by Mote Marine somewhere on the parking lot of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall,” the minutes said.

Crosby told the commission that the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County, the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, the Argus Foundation, “sister institutions at the Sarasota Arts Alliance, the Town of Longboat Key, the Young Professionals of Sarasota and others” had endorsed the concept, the minutes continued.

Although Mote had reviewed several locations on the Sarasota bayfront, Crosby pointed out, a study had determined that the best location for the new facility would be the Van Wezel parking lot, as that would be a 15-minute drive from 62,687 people in the area, the minutes said. Crosby also explained that the feasibility study Mote had undertaken “considered Mote Marine’s economic impact to have the highest possible success at a new Bayfront location,” the minutes added.

The commissioners discussed the concept of the new aquarium in the context of planning already underway for new cultural and arts facilities on the bayfront, the minutes said.

An October 2014 graphic shown to the City Commission offers details of the aquarium proposed on the bayfront. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

At that time, the Bayfront 20:20 group was conducting sessions with community leaders in the first stages of an initiative to develop a concept for how the bayfront best could be utilized. (Since then, the initiative has morphed into The Bay Sarasota, whose vision, its website explains, is “to create a long-term master plan for the Sarasota Bayfront area that will establish a cultural and economic legacy for the region while ensuring open, public access to the Bayfront.”)

Crosby told the commissioners during that October 2014 meeting that Mote had been “working with many of the organizations which are part of Bayfront 20:20 for the past four years,” the minutes noted. However, Mote was at the point, he said, where it needed to decide whether to go forward with its project. He and other Mote leaders believed the aquarium proposal would “be good for the City and good for achieving the vision of Bayfront 20:20,” the minutes continued.

The commissioners ultimately voted 3-2 against a motion made by then-Commissioner Shannon Snyder to deny Mote’s request for the letter of endorsement for an aquarium on the city-owned bayfront property. However, they unanimously approved a second Snyder motion that encouraged Mote “to continue to participate and engage in the Bayfront 20:20 initiative.”

History within the city

Among the other backup agenda material for the City Commission’s Feb. 20 discussion about Mote is a copy of the seventh amendment to the city’s lease with the organization, dated Mach 21, 2013. That points out that the original lease dates to Nov. 19, 1986 and adds that the expiration date for Mote’s lease of the Ken Thompson Park property runs to Feb. 28, 2050.

The original 1986 lease between the City of Sarasota and Mote includes this exhibit showing the location of facilities on City Island. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

During the Feb. 8 press conference, Mote CEO Crosby said, “The rebirth of Mote Aquarium on the mainland will not only help us grow our informal science education and outreach programs and develop a more ocean-literate society; equally important, it will lead to the next step in the evolution of our City Island campus into an enhanced International Marine Science, Technology and Innovation Park.” He added, “This will provide Mote researchers, science and technology entrepreneurs and their international partners much-needed facilities for expanded intensive research and allow Mote’s best and brightest to excel in addressing the significant threats facing Earth’s oceans. Beyond 2020, I expect that Mote Marine Laboratory will become the catalyst for a new ‘Silicon Valley’ of marine science and technology in Southwest Florida, leading to more than just improved conservation and sustainable use of our oceans. The innovations and intellectual property generated by Mote and a growing marine science and technology sector will be the fuel for an expansion of Florida’s blue economy, with impacts felt well beyond our state.”

Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit research organization, was founded in 1955. As its news release noted, “Mote began with the passion of a single researcher, Dr. Eugenie Clark, her partnership with the community and philanthropic support, first of the Vanderbilt family and later of the William R. Mote family.”
Mote has five campuses, including field stations in eastern Sarasota County and the Florida Keys.