Voicing support for Mote Marine’s proposed new aquarium, County Commission plans discussion on allocations of county’s Tourist Development Tax revenue

Mote has asked for $20 million to help pay for estimated $130-million structure at Benderson Park

A rendering shows how the proposed new aquarium would look at night. Rendering provided by CambridgeSeve

The Sarasota County commissioners this week directed county administrative staff to continue discussions with representatives of Mote Marine regarding the organization’s proposal to construct a $130-million aquarium on 9 acres at the county’s Nathan Benderson Park.

The June 12 motion by Commissioner Paul Caragiulo — seconded by Commissioner Charles Hines — also asked that staff work on a proposal for the possible reallocation of the revenue from each of the five pennies of the county’s Tourist Development Tax — also known as the “bed tax.” That was in response to a request in a May 17 letter County Administrator Jonathan Lewis received from Michael P. Crosby, president and CEO of Mote. Crosby not only asked for a long-term lease on the park property — which is located near University Parkway and Interstate 75 — but also “Sarasota County financial support commitment” of $20 million to assist with construction expenses.

When Mote leaders announced plans for their new Science Education Aquarium, they indicated their fundraising for the project “started strong on Feb. 8,” as a news release put it.

Lewis pointed out on June 12 that the only option for providing Mote the $20 million would be Tourist Development Tax (TDT) revenue. He also referenced the “multiple demands” on those funds.

“I think that, long-term, we need to have a discussion” about the potential reallocation of the TDT revenue, Caragiulo said, including “how much is devoted to advertising and marketing, specifically. … I know, at times, that’s been a difficult conversation. But I think that that really needs to be done.”

The revenue from the 5% tax on accommodations, which has broken records the past two fiscal years, is divided into different “pots” according to the terms of a county ordinance. Some of the money is used for beach renourishment projects, for example, and those are becoming more expensive, Hines noted. Another portion of the revenue goes into the budget of Visit Sarasota County (VSC), the county’s tourism office, for promotional purposes.

Commissioner Paul Caragiulo. File photo

Caragiulo indicated on June 12 that one primary focus of the future board discussion should be on whether more of the TDT revenue should be used “to bring more product to the county.” Yet, he added, “This is not to call into question any previous practice … This is really about revenue management and making choices in investment, basically.”

Several years ago, then-County Commissioner Joe Barbetta argued that more of the TDT revenue should be allocated for projects that would lead to an even greater influx of visitors to the county.

“We’re fortunate to have choices available when something special like this [aquarium proposal] pops up,” Detert said, referring to the board’s ability to reapportion the TDT revenue.

As for the aquarium project itself: All four of the commissioners present for the June 12 meeting voiced support for it. (Commissioner Michael Moran was absent because of a death in the family, Chair Nancy Detert explained.)
Detert noted that the aquarium would be visible from I-75 if it sits on the grounds of the 600-acre Benderson Park.

“I think it’s a phenomenal piece for the county,” she added.

Commissioner Alan Maio told his colleagues, “I can’t wait for the day when you enter our beautiful county and you see that building during the daytime and glowing in the nighttime, if we can work out all the details. I think that will get us more tourists, also, and more bed tax.”

“I’m very much in favor of moving forward with this and exploring the opportunities,” Hines said. “I think it’s unique and beneficial … to have an entity that’s known throughout the world,” he added of Mote.

A February graphic shows how the five pennies of the Tourist Development Tax are allocated. Image courtesy Sarasota County

If the commissioners approved a long-term lease or even a sale of the park acreage to Mote, Hines pointed out, that “would immediately give [the organization] an asset on [its] books to proceed with [its] fundraising” and a request to the state for financial assistance.

Hines also concurred with Caragiulo about the TDT revenue discussion, noting that, the previous day, the county’s Tourist Development Council held a special meeting on the proposed Visit Sarasota County budget for the 2019 fiscal year.

He pointed out that the bed tax collections appear headed to another new high mark at the end of this fiscal year, which will occur on Sept. 30.

Nonetheless, Hines continued, “There [are] people from all different areas asking for a piece of those [TDT] pennies … and we can’t always think that we’re going to have record year after record year after record year.”

Seeking direction

A map shows the area under consideration for the aquarium on Benderson Park property, which the county owns. Image courtesy Sarasota County

County Administrator Lewis brought up the Mote letter during his report to the board on June 12. He had been in discussions with Mote representatives, he noted. “It took a little bit of going back and forth.”

He wanted to outline his proposed next steps, he said, to ascertain whether the commissioners felt those would be appropriate.

“[With] a project of this magnitude,” Detert responded, “there’s an ebb and flow to it. … We don’t expect you to pop out with the end results today.”

Among staff’s next steps, Lewis said, “I think we would be better served” to seek an independent review of the financial feasibility study Mote plans for the project, just to confirm the findings after the organization provides them to county staff.

Caragiulo agreed with that suggestion. “I think that augmented due diligence is veryappropriate.”