Manatee officials find solution to help pay for Mote Marine’s new Sarasota aquarium

After turning down their initial $15 million request, Manatee commissioners say they’d like to lead a charge to help fund Mote Marine’s planned Science Education Aquarium.

Commissioner Vanessa Baugh called for further discussion into the matter during Tuesday’s Board of County Commissioners meeting. At a previous meeting, board members ordered staff to investigate funding sources.

Mote Marine’s new state-of-the-art facility is expected to cost about $130 million and will be built at Nathan Benderson Park, right across the Manatee-Sarasota county line. Mote officials had requested $25 million from the Florida Legislature but didn’t receive those funds this year.

Now, staff say they may have found a way to lend a hand – and beat Sarasota County commissioners, who haven’t pledged a requested $20 million yet, to the punch.

“If we move in before Sarasota on this thing, we can have a very nice agreement with Mote on how to promote Manatee County, so there are some advantages there,” Baugh noted.

The use of general revenue funds for a project outside of the county lines became a point of contention for Manatee officials. The board was hopeful that tourist development funds might be a more palatable revenue source.

But according to the county attorney’s office, those funds can’t be used for brick and mortar development in a different jurisdiction than Manatee County. A series of discussions and even more brainstorming hatched a new plan, commissioners said.

“There are options, which I think is terrific because we need to be a part of this regional project,” Baugh said.

Now, the county will look to use tourist development funds to fund certain exhibits within the Science Education Aquarium. As long as those exhibits somehow promote tourism in Manatee County, the expenditure will be legally defensible, Chief Assistant County Attorney Bill Clague said.

“Mote may want to confer with the Florida Aquarium to see how they may have taken advantage of tourist funds,” Clague suggested.

Representatives from Mote said they were thankful for Manatee’s consideration and still exploring how they could use the funding.

“We understand you can’t use (tourist development tax) for brick and mortar, but you can for other expenses,” George Mazzarantani said. “We’re looking to see what those might be. We’re very excited and very appreciative.”

“We don’t view this from a Sarasota perspective but a region one,” he added.

In his initial pitch, Mote Marine CEO Michael Crosby touted the $28 million regional impact the 100,000 square-foot attraction would bring. Baugh argued that her colleagues must recognize the opportunity sitting in front of them.

“I could throw a rock from the Manatee side and probably hit the building,” she said. “When you live out there and see how close it is, to say it won’t affect Manatee, I think is shallow-minded.”

Commissioner Carol Whitmore, who chairs the Tourist Development Council, acknowledged that tourism tax funds have been used in similar instances elsewhere, but warned the board couldn’t afford to dish out $15 million in tourism tax funds.

Mazzarantani, however, assured the board that conversations are still in the works and Mote will come before commissioners with an adjusted request at a later date.