With Mote planning to break ground by end of September, county funding support could be modified, Commissioner Hines says, because of economic downturn produced by pandemic
Nine days before the president and CEO of Mote Marine Laboratory announced a late-September groundbreaking for the organization’s new Science Education Aquarium (SEA) project at Nathan Benderson Park, the Sarasota County Commission affirmed its $20-million contribution to that project as the last portion of the $130 million in funds.
Additionally, on a unanimous vote on July 7, the commission authorized County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to execute a modified agreement with Mote to facilitate the aquarium project. That does not involve vertical construction, as Commissioner Nancy Detert noted.
In a June 22 letter to Lewis, Michael Crosby, Mote president and CEO, wrote, “Due to a level of preparedness beyond what we initially expected, we respectfully request a slight modification to the Short Term Lease that would allow for additional site preparation work, which we will refer to as Enabling Work. … While we are most confident that Mote SEA will be constructed and completed,” Crosby continued, “if the work does not proceed beyond the parking lot and site improvements described in the attached Enabling Work narrative, the county will have, at no cost, a completed first-class parking facility and a multi-purpose finished and graded site for future use.”
The primary focus of the Enabling Work, Crosby pointed out, “is that the main body of the aquarium structure has shifted from south to north. This has many benefits, including enhancing the ease of visitor access, the speed and accessibility of emergency services, segregating service/loading functions, increasing the functional accessibility and inter-relationship with [the Mall at University Town Center], and enhancing visitor access.”
The Enabling Work Plans document explains that construction of the building pad for the new Aquarium, as well as construction of the parking lot, would commence this fall. The building pad work, the document notes, would necessitate the damming, draining and dewatering of the north lake at Benderson Park “to allow for importation of fill material from the borrow area. The borrow area is designated as the ‘pine forest’ location,” as noted in accompanying plans provided to county staff.
After certain steps have been completed, the document adds, the north lake would be “undammed and water … allowed to flow in and surround the newly created building pad.”
All those adjustments, Crosby noted, would require “a minor amendment to the Omnibus Agreement” the County Commission approved with Mote in January 2019.
On March 24 of this year, the commissioners approved the formal two-year lease with Mote for an 11.45-acre site at Benderson Park, with Mote to pay $100 per year. The goal, as outlined in the March 2019 Omnibus Agreement, is for Mote ultimately to own the site.
Lewis explained to the commissioners on July 7 that it was not possible for administrative staff to complete all the details necessary for them to approve the revised agreement with Mote. However, he pointed out, they would not hold another regular meeting until Aug. 26, because of their traditional summer break.
Mote leaders had voiced concerns about the timing of the groundbreaking, Lewis added.
“The timelines on this are super important to them,” Chair Mike Moran responded.
“The takeaway on this might be … there’s no ask for the taxpayer of any money for this,” Moran added. “All the improvements … are at [Mote’s] expense.”
At that point, Moran asked whether his colleagues wanted to give Lewis the authority to execute the revised agreement, “as long as it fits all those parameters I just discussed.”
When Commissioner Christian Ziegler asked whether Lewis would prefer a board motion to consensus, Lewis replied that the motion would be his preference.
After Ziegler made the motion, Commissioner Alan Maio seconded it.
County funding concerns
That County Commission discussion came about two weeks after the topic of the funding for the Mote Aquarium arose during the most recent Tourist Development Council (TDC) meeting.
As Virginia Haley, president of the county’s tourism office, Visit Sarasota County (VSC), was presenting her budget for the 2021 fiscal year on June 18, TDC member Kathleen Lehner, president and CEO of the Venice Area Chamber of Commerce, asked about the County Commission’s decision to allocate a portion of the promotional money that normally would go to Visit Sarasota County to Mote instead.
“Would it be possible to give money back to this budget [for Visit Sarasota County], Lehner continued on June 18, “especially with this hard-time hit?” She was referring to the economic downturn in the travel and hospitality industry as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
On Feb. 20, the TDC members had voted unanimously to recommend that county staff draw up the $20-million funding agreement with Mote.
Haley explained that the diversion of the promotional funds — an estimated $1.4 million a year, before the pandemic began — would not affect her 2021 fiscal year budget. Instead, that reallocation of “bed tax” money would begin in the 2022 fiscal year.
Commissioner Charles Hines, who chairs the TDC, also emphasized — as Commissioner Detert did on July 8 — “The county money was really the last in” for the Aquarium project. He had heard no recent update about Mote’s fundraising, Hines added.
Still, he told Lehner, “It’s a fair question to ask. … Sometimes things may get modified.”
Hines then referenced a comment Haley had made earlier in her presentation. “I was sad to hear that the airlines think this is going to be a couple of years” before tourism rebounds to levels seen before the public health emergency.
Addressing Lehner again, Hines said he believes future county commissioners “would have to revisit [the Mote funding support] if the county’s “bed tax” revenue does not make a return to pre-pandemic levels in a shorter time frame.
“That’s what I really wanted to make sure of,” Lehner responded. Because of the county economy’s reliance on tourism, she indicated that VSC may need the promotional funds more urgently than Mote.
Haley did point to the strong public support for the new Aquarium, adding that she and her staff would figure out how to make things work.
A public celebration
During a July 16 presentation at Benderson Park, Crosby, the president and CEO of Mote, announced that $75 million in contributions has been secured for the new Aquarium, adding, “That is a pretty big milestone to be hitting.”
The goal, he said, is to break ground for the new facility “by the end of September of this year.”
Noting the county’s contribution of close to 12 acres for the project, Crosby also pointed out that the architectural firm — TVS Design of Atlanta — has been brought on board for the creation of the 110,000-square-foot Mote SEA.
Mote’s aquarium on City Island, just north of St. Armands Key, encompasses about 60,000 square feet, he noted.
Mote anticipates about 700,000 visitors a year at the new Aquarium, Crosby said, adding that the expectation is that the facility will provide a significant boost to the region’s economy.
More than 43 million vehicles a year drive past the site where the facility will be built, he pointed out, and more than 3 million people live within a 60-minute drive of that location.
Further, Crosby emphasized the three STEM teaching laboratories that will be part of the project, at an expense of approximately $7 million each. “This is a vital part of our mission,” he continued. All students from kindergarten through 12th grade in Sarasota and Manatee counties — and others in the area — will be able to take advantage of learning opportunities “absolutely free of charge” when they visit Mote SEA, he said.
Mote staff has been working with the Sarasota County and Manatee County school districts, Crosby added, to develop the curricula for those student initiatives.
The relocation of the Aquarium to Benderson Park, Crosby also noted, will enable Mote to transform its City Island campus into an international marine science, technology and innovation park. Mote leaders, he added, envision that new campus as a catalyst for creativity in marine science, just as Silicon Valley in California has been the center for innovation in technology.
As he showed the audience new renderings of the Mote SEA facilities, Crosby pointed out that nearly 1 million gallons of animal habitats will be created, to showcase “a stunning array of species from around the world.”
Every exhibit, he said, will be connected to Mote research.
Along with Sarasota County’s funding contribution, Crosby noted, Manatee County has committed to the project, as have philanthropic organizations and numerous individuals.
Manatee County Commissioner Misty Servia, who also spoke during the July 16 event, said her board had agreed to give Mote $5 million for the project; that will come out of Manatee County’s bed tax revenue.
Further, the Florida Legislature this year allocated $3 million to the project, Kevin Cooper, Mote’s vice president for communications and strategic initiatives, told The Sarasota News Leader.