Mote’s aquarium is about a year from making a tourism splash
Sarasota formalizes a plan to fund its $20 million promise to the north county project.
Your out-of-town visitors will have to make do with typical Sarasota-region attractions this holiday season, but Mote Marine Laboratory’s aquarium at Nathan Benderson Park should be ready for them next time around.
Speaking before Sarasota County Commissioners in November, Mote’s Vice President for Communications and Strategic Initiatives Kevin Cooper said the organization is targeting a general-public opening in a little more than a year, with several milestones along the way.
“We anticipate doing some soft openings, bringing people like you inside the building sometime in December of 2024, hoping for, at the latest, a Jan. 1, 2025 opening for the general public,’’ Cooper told commissioners who were discussing how to fund $20 million pledged in 2020 to the $130 million project. “But people will be coming inside the doors in December of 2024.’’
“This is truly the definition of tourist development, and an incredible use of these funds. I would argue there is no better use of funds in the state of Florida that I’ve ever seen.”Commissioner Mike Moran
According to Mote, the Science Education Aquarium (SEA) will double its annual visitation to approximately 700,000 people a year, as compared to its City Island site, growing from 60,000 square feet to 111,000 and a capacity of a million visitors annually. The under-construction structure towers over a once-open landscape between the park and University Town Center, easily visible from adjacent Interstate 75, something Commissioner Neil Rainford called “a gateway to our community.’’
“If you’re driving by there, it’s no secret anymore that this is out of the ground,’’ Cooper said.
Cooper said Mote expects to request a certificate of occupancy from the county in late summer of 2024, after which animals can be introduced into the aquarium’s tanks and exhibits, including the centerpiece — a three-story tall, 400,000-gallon Gulf of Mexico exhibit.
Commissioner Mike Moran noted how the county’s recent approval of $65 million to remake nearby 17th Street Park into a sports-tourism destination along with recent additions and plans at University Town Center and Benderson Park dovetail with the Mote building in terms of attracting overnight visitors.
“This is truly the definition of tourist development,’’ he said, “and an incredible use of these funds. I would argue there is no better use of funds in the state of Florida that I’ve ever seen.”
Mote’s funding for the project comes from a variety of sources, including private donations and pledged support from state and local governments. Manatee County Commissioners approved a $5 million pledge in 2020, also coming from tourism taxes, though Mote initially requested $15 million.
At their meeting on Nov. 14, Sarasota commissioners expressed their intent to use revenue from the county’s Tourism Development Tax to fund their pledge to Mote. Formal consideration of setting up the bond and final terms for repayment have yet to be presented to the commission.
According to Kim Radke, director of the county’s office of financial management, 70 percent of the county’s newest penny tourism tax addition is earmarked for capital improvement projects — and the Mote project falls into that category. The sixth penny was approved in 2022 after Sarasota County’s tourism tax collections qualified it to levy an additional percentage point beyond the traditional 5 percent. In fiscal year 2024, that sixth penny is expected to deliver more than $5.1 million in revenue with a forecast of rising revenues through the 2028 fiscal year.
Over 20 years, at a borrowing rate of 4.75 percent — which Radke said could fall a bit before locking in the terms -- the county would borrow $16 million and pay about $1.1 million a year after setting aside some cash in the first two years to pay down the debt.
Revenue from the sixth penny will also form the basis for some of the 17th Street Park project funding, though debt service on that deal climbs to more than $2.1 million by fiscal year 2026 and extends for a total of 30 years.
“It was an honor watching this come from a conceptual conversation, visionary discussion, colorful renderings, some would have argued wishful thinking, to all of a sudden, you guys have driven by and seen it, we are way beyond that,’’ said Moran, who was on the commission when the Mote proposal was initially made, “It’s truly amazing.’’
Mote’s City Island facility will remain and take on a more research-based role, something commissioners also said could benefit the area by potentially inspiring a new generation of marine biologists.
“I grew up in Boston and we had an awesome aquarium, I know Atlanta has an awesome aquarium, but for that to be right here in Sarasota is pretty special,’’ Rainford said.
Eric Garwood is the executive editor of the Community News Collaborative. He can be reached at email@example.com.