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It's Official - Voters to Decide if City Should Lease Property to CMA


Published:   |   Updated: July 11, 2013 at 11:14 AM
CLEARWATER -

A referendum authorizing the city to negotiate and enter into a lease with the Clearwater Marine Aquarium for the future site of a $160 million dollar aquarium, which will trigger the relocation of City Hall operations, will go before the voters on November 5.
 
During a recent meeting of the City Council, the second reading of an amendment to the City Charter was unanimously approved and adopted. The amendment calls for a special election for voters to consider whether the City should be allowed to negotiate and enter into a lease with aquarium officials for the construction, operation and maintenance of an aquarium on City owned property. The proposed aquarium would be built on the current site of City Hall and the adjacent land leading west to the harbor. Last December, CMA purchased a 1.16 acre parcel south of the current City Hall site for $2.1 million as a “good faith expression” of its intent to fulfill the ambitious plan for the aquarium.
 
Voter approve of the amendment to the Charter would mean that city and aquarium officials can move forward with negotiations and enter into a ground lease for an initial term not to exceed 60 years. Compensation for the lease would be determined by the City Council, which may be less than fair market value. It also authorizes the relocation of the city tennis courts to a location that will also be determined by the City Council.
 
A consequent of the referendum's approval is the relocation of City Hall and its operations. Earlier this year, the City Council heard preliminary options to relocate their offices to either a new $7.5 million dollar building or to existing vacant office space in downtown. No decision has been made.
 
Before the council could vote last month to authorize the November referendum, they heard from residents in the Pierce 100 condominium concerned about the influx of traffic and the location of a new parking garage for aquarium visitors.
 
Bernice Turner told the council, “We're worried and we're concerned. With 7,500 people a day, which is projected, we're worried about…can we get home…can we get out…can an ambulance come when we need an ambulance.”  Concern for security and safety was raised. “Don't forget us,” she said. “Make sure we can get in and out of our homes.”
 
Kay Sasnett, another resident of Pierce 100, said, “At the corner of Osceola and Pierce, there's a sign that says no outlet. If this aquarium is built, it will actually mean 'no outlet.' There will be no way for us to leave our home.” She also challenged the comparison of the aquarium to that of Monterey Bay Aquarium. “I lived in Monterey, California. It won't be comparable to Monterey.”  She also raised concern about how the traffic impact would impact boat owners, who park their vessels at the nearby Clearwater Harbor Marina. “I do not believe people will want to go through that kind of traffic and that mass of people…750,000 a year…to reach their boats.”
 
In closing, Sasnett told the council, “Winter is not going to survive a sixty year lease. I'm not going to survive a 60-year lease. I do not believe all the projections are true.”
 
Mayor George Cretekos told the residents, “We hear you. We are still negotiating with the marine aquarium on a lot of the items that you have raised. What we're discussing now is whether or not to put this on the ballot so voters will have the opportunity to vote 'yes or no.'”
 
The Mayor also stated that the memorandum of understanding between City and aquarium officials may not address all the issues raised. “Some may not be answered to yours or our satisfaction before the election.”
 
In response, Clearwater Marine Aquarium Board member Brian Aungst said, aquarium officials have “proactively reached out to all of our potential neighbors. We have absolutely not forgotten about any of them and we will not forget about their concerns.”
 
Due to active negotiations for the proposed parking garage, Aungst said he could not discuss details yet, but it will be addressed in the memorandum of understanding. “The Pierce Street site is by no means the final site” and has not been identified definitively as the site for the parking garage. “We are actively looking at multiple sites throughout the downtown area.”
 
Frank Dame, aquarium Executive Vice President, told the council, “We are sensitive to the neighbors' concerns.” Regarding the reference to traffic congestion, he said, “We're bringing 317,000 people downtown and we're not seeing a material difference in the traffic congestion.”
 
As it relates to access to the Pierce 100 complex, Dame said that a proposal is under consideration to extend Drew Street to the old Pierce Street, which would provide an alternate access route to and from the waterfront complex. “We're thinking of resolutions for the Pierce 100 residents...I will do my very best to give them honest answers and try to resolve certain solutions as they did with residents of Water's Edge.”
 
jane@clearwatergazette.com

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