It’s a “rebirth” of Mote Marine Laboratories: a new aquarium near Interstate 75 that would be more than twice as large as Mote’s current facility, and, Mote leaders hope, leave visitors feeling either “warmly embraced or smacked in the face with science.”
Plans for a new state-of-the-art aquarium at Nathan Benderson Park will allow Mote’s scientists to use their current facility in Sarasota to help them become what Michael Crosby, president and CEO of Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, calls the “Silicon Valley of Marine Science.”
“We have got really some of the best and brightest minds in marine science and we want to make sure that they’re able to translate, transfer, and convey the importance of that science to the public,” Crosby said Thursday.
Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium is outgrowing their facilities on City Island, Crosby said. They’ve had to turn down opportunities to work with scientists from around the world because there is no room. Two new scientists hired by Mote have been stationed at their Florida Keys facility, because there was not enough room on City Island.
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The proposed multi-story, 110,000-square-foot aquarium would expand public access to marine science and technology, as well as allow more space for the research done at Mote to come to life and inspire others. It would also allow the scientists to continue and expand their research at their location on City Island.
Bob Essner, chairman of the board of trustees at Mote, called the new facility a “next and necessary step.”
“Mote has been a great research institute for a long time,” Essner said. “But the aquarium is going to be both a tremendously visible face for Mote as you’ve seen in the pictures we’ve shown, it’s spectacular; but it’s also going to be a portal into the science.”
After five years of looking for the perfect site, aquarium officials plan to construct the Mote Science Education Aquarium on about five acres of Sarasota County-owned land within Nathan Benderson Park, near Interstate 75 off the University Parkway exit. Mote officials have spoken with county officials, but have not made a formal request to get a long-term lease for the land approved. That is being initiated now, according to Mote officials.
The renderings displayed during Thursday’s press conference show a large, rounded building that Crosby said would be seen from the interstate, drawing even more attention to the area. At night, the outside of the building would be lit up with images of swimming animals.
The proposed aquarium will have 1 million gallons of water for exhibits, making a new home for animals and organisms from around the world. There would also be space for on-site diving programs, as well as teaching labs and space for science and technology demonstrations.
Science, Crosby said, will be first and foremost at the new aquarium.
Mote officials hope to begin construction in late 2019 with a goal of opening the facility in late 2021. They anticipate about 700,000 visitors in the opening year.
Education and economics
Crosby wants the Mote Science Education Aquarium to provide education not just to visitors but to area students. They aim to include teaching labs for kindergarten through 12th-grade students, and “putting research and education to work with schools in the region” for free. Included in the plans are hands-on STEM facilities.
“Part of the goal of this really is to get people here very involved in what’s going on in the seas around them. We all live near it, we all see it every day or almost every day, but yet, a lot people don’t really know much about marine science, about what the threats are, about what can be done to avert those threats and by bringing school children…. Everybody will get a sense of it,” Essner said.
The plan for the land also includes nature and education trails and science displays near the aquarium.
Mote officials emphasized the economic impact the construction would have as well. They estimate about $280 million in direct and indirect expenditures and 3,123 total person-years’ employment. As well, they estimated $28 million annually in economic benefits for Florida.
Being away from the ocean won’t be an issue for them, said Crosby, noting another large aquarium in Tennessee as an example. What is vital, he said, is the research and the research facility that is staying right where it is.
Funding the new facility
Powering the advance, Mote officials said Thursday, is the organization’s new, $130 million capital construction fund-raising effort, “Oceans for All: Improving Access to Marine Science & Technology.”
Mote will need an estimated $100 million in construction costs, as well as another $20 million to $30 million in pre-construction costs. Mote is working with two firms from the Northeast for the logistics of the build.
For a majority of the funding, Mote is planning on turning to the community for help by raising funds through their “Oceans for All” initiative. Corporate partners and sponsors will also be called on for a large chunk of the funds, with plans to seek some assistance from state and local governments and other public sources.
Already, 20 percent of the funds needed for the construction have been pledged, officials said.
Crosby said Mote plans to ask for only construction costs, and will take on all operational costs of the new facility themselves. He said he’s confident in the staff’s ability to run the larger facility.
“It’s just a major undertaking for Mote, but one that we’re pretty comfortable with because we’ve been running a successful aquarium now on a smaller scale for about 40 years,” Essner said.
The City Island facilities will become a science and innovation park, and Crosby hopes to grow the research facilities. But those plans are for beyond 2021. Crosby said they are looking to keep the City Island facility “fully operational and top-notch.” Once the time comes to open the new aquarium, they will shut down the old aquarium for a short period of time to move the animals.
Crosby said he’s excited for the anticipated impact the new facility will have.
“Beyond 2020, this is going to allow Mote Marine Laboratory to serve as the catalyst that will help pull together all of the different entities…. in southwest Florida,” Crosby said.
Herald staff writer Samantha Putterman contributed to this story.