On the fifth floor of the Nathan Benderson Park Finishing Tower, Bob Essner, Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium’s chairman of the board, pointed across the lake to a five-acre, county-owned strip of land where more than a dozen blue flags waved. It marked the projected site of the new Mote Science Education Aquarium. At the moment, Mote leaders are in discussions with the county about the lease.
The $130 million fund-raising project is called Oceans for All: Improving Access to Marine Science & Technology. If all goes well, Mote expects the first shovel in the ground by late 2019, and a ribbon cutting by late 2021. Renderings of the facility show a 100-foot tall, four-story building of stacked oval-shaped rings that look like something out of a sci-fi movie. At night, projections of marine life will streak across the building’s facade.
What’s wrong with the location of Mote’s current aquarium on City Island? Mote president and CEO Michael Crosby says there simply isn’t enough room for Mote’s marine research. “We turn away scientists every month from all over the world who want to come to Mote,” Crosby says. “We must evolve the City Island campus into an international marine science, technology and innovation park. We need to do this to address the grand challenges that are facing our oceans today. I’ve got no place to put the additional 10 Ph.D. scientists that we are hiring between now and 2020. We’ve converted the women’s restroom on the first floor into a laboratory. Closets into offices.”
Crosby says Mote’s City Island campus is one of the best locations in the world for a marine research institution, but it is not accessible for a major public attraction. That's why Mote is planning for a “rebirth” of its aquarium on the mainland. Nathan Benderson Park, just off I-75 and University Parkway, is a high-visibility site, with 120,000 drivers passing by each day. The new location is a perfect nexus between Sarasota and Bradenton and should reach a far larger audience.
The new aquarium also will be much larger, doubling square footage to more than 110,000 square feet. The exhibits will total more than 1 million gallons and will feature sharks, coral reefs, manatees, sea turtles, otters, seahorses, jellyfish and myriad other marine species. According to Mote’s calculations, the first year of attendance will be 700,000 visitors, more than double what the current aquarium receives. Crosby expects the aquarium to provide approximately $28 million in economic benefits to the state of the Florida annually. The aquarium also promises to provide hands-on STEM experience to schools, free of charge, to enhance ocean literacy.
Of the projected $130 million cost of the new facility, Mote has already secured more than 20 percent of the total. The remainder will be raised through philanthropy, partnerships and the public.