One year ago, Mote Marine announced its $130 million dream — a new Mote Science and Education Aquarium at Nathan Benderson Park, near the Sarasota-Manatee county line.
The 12-acre state-of-the-art facility would feature a 1.2-million-gallon, 110,000 square-foot aquarium featuring marine life and scientific displays from around the world Mote would also offer on-site diving programs and a STEM resource center for students, teachers and the general public.
It’s an ambitious goal and so far Mote has raised about $31 million, but has a long way to go to hit its goal. Mote hopes to acquire another $45 million in taxpayer dollars.
At the time of the announcement in February of 2018, hopes were to start construction by the end of this year. While that remains the goal, they are tens of millions of dollars away from reality. One state representative and the Sarasota County Board of Commissioners could help close the gap.
Rep. Tommy Gregory, R-Sarasota, is requesting $25 million from the legislature for the project. His bill is currently in the Transportation and Tourism Appropriations subcommittee.
While Mote Marine plays a valuable role in the community to both marine science, wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, as well as the battle against red tide, time will tell whether a new facility is a legislative priority.
Gregory did not return a call for comment but if his bill advances and gets approved, it would combine with a $20 million request from Mote to Sarasota County. With $31 million in existing and pledged donations, it would get Mote to $76 million.
It’s more than enough to get the proverbial ball rolling, but still a long way from their ultimate goal. However, the Oceans for All campaign continues and philanthropic support will be the long-term difference.
Sarasota County has been a staunch supporter of the project, but separated a dual request from Mote late last year for access to the land and the actual funding. Sarasota voted to give Mote a short-term lease to the property in January so that it can conduct surveying and other due diligence requirements needed for eventual purchase.
As for a vote on whether to provide $20 million, Sarasota County government spokesman Drew Winchester said there is no timeline for the vote at this time.
“There isn’t much new since that Jan. 30 vote,” Winchester said. “Originally, the land and the funding were in the same request but those two things were separated. At this point, there hasn’t been any discussion and no timeline for a vote on the funding.”
Mote has two years to do its due diligence on the land but must provide proof that the project is fully funded before construction can start under the terms of the current lease agreement. That could change if Mote ultimately buys the land but if it doesn’t, the lease would revert to a 90-year long-term lease.
Should the legislature and Sarasota not approve the funding being requested, it currently would leave Mote just under $99 million away from its goal.
Stephannie Kettle, public relations manager for Mote, said due diligence is underway.
“Following the signing of the omnibus agreement in January, Mote has been granted use of the land in order to conduct important surveying that must be completed prior to construction,” Kettle said. “In addition to that, design and engineering are another major part of Mote’s focus right now.”
In other words, the project is on schedule and it’s full steam ahead for a project that Mote’s website says represents, “A rebirth of the current Mote Aquarium.”
While it would take major financial gains to meet construction timetable hopes, Kettle said plenty of work will be done over the course of the two-year lease where, “Mote will pursue normal, due diligence steps and seek zoning approval for ultimate sale of the land.”
The conceptual designs for the new aquarium also feature educational galleries with interactive and advanced digital reality technology to enhance learning, as well as outdoor nature trails with potential additional features such as demonstrations of snook stock enhancements and wetland restorations.