Mote Marine Laboratories is seeking $5 million over three years from Manatee County government to improve and expand programs at the City Island facility, located at 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway in Sarasota.
Dan Bebak, Mote’s vice president for Aquarium, Education and Outreach, presented the request to the Manatee County Tourist Development Council on Monday, citing a dramatic increase in Mote visitors and Sarasota County’s ongoing support of other Mote programs.
Sarasota County contributes about $450,000 a year to marketing programs at Mote, Bebak said.
The proposed infusion of money would go to estuary excursions, environmental kayaking, behind-the-scenes science education, a Baywalk environmental experience and classroom technology.
Also envisioned: environmental multi-day group programs, augmented reality aquarium tour development, digital learning access and enhanced aquarium guide programs.
Bebak’s request Monday is separate from the $15 million that Mote CEO Michael Crosby requested in March from the Manatee County Commission for a planned $130 million aquarium facility at Nathan Benderson Park.
Manatee County now contributes about $300,000 to activities at Nathan Benderson Park, according to Elliott Falcione, executive director of Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“You can spend your money to promote your brand outside Manatee County,” Falcione told members of the TDC, but not on brick-and-mortar projects.
Carol Whitmore, the Manatee County commissioner who chaired Monday’s TDC meeting, said $5 million is a lot of money and asked for a line-item budget on how the money would be spent.
“I would be more comfortable with more specific information,” Whitmore said.
The TDC makes recommendations to the Manatee County Commission on how tourist bed tax dollars are spent, largely to promote tourism in Manatee County.
Eric Cairns and Barbara Baker, members of the TDC who represent the hospitality industry, asked Bebak if Mote is also asking for more money from Sarasota County.
“We continue to ask for more from Sarasota County,” Bebak said.
Mote has requested $25 million from Sarasota County for the planned aquarium at Benderson Park.
“That’s not what we are talking about today,” Bebak said.
Whitmore said she has a problem with Mote’s $5 million request in that she lacks the details to justify the request.
“The devil is in the details. We need the details. I am not prepared to vote today. What I am saying is convince me,” Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston, a member of the TDC, told Bebak.
Members of the TDC expressed their respect for the work that Mote does.
“I am on the fence with this. I’m torn. I love Mote Marine. Convince me,” Cairns said.
The majority of TDC members said they could not vote on the Mote request without having more information.
Whitmore asked Mote to return to the TDC’s board meeting in November with more details. The TDC can then make a recommendation to the county commission for its meeting in December.
In other business Monday, Anne Wittine presented the Bradenton area tourism research report for July from Research Data Services.
In fiscal year 2019 to date (October 2018-July 2019), Manatee County reported 665,400 visitors, up 2.9 percent from the 646,700 who visited during the same period a year earlier. The economic impact was up 5.5 percent to $966,919,800 from the $916,474,400 a year earlier.
The largest chunk of those visitors, 177,220, came from Florida and was up 5.6 percent. The Midwest contributed 147,810 visitors, up 4.4 percent, and the Northeast contributed 145,840 visitors, up 5.5 percent. The number of visitors from Europe, 83,960, was down 3.9 percent.
For the month of July, visitor traffic was 77,000, up 3.8 percent from the same month a year earlier.