By Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune.
I have been a fan of The Florida Aquarium since its supporters came to The Tampa Tribune Editorial Board in the early 1990s to unveil their vision of an attraction that would entertain and educate visitors while generating revenue for environmental conservation and research.
But, I also must admit the Aquarium was the source of one of the dumber things I wrote in my 30-some years as an editorial writer.
Backers sought taxpayer support for the construction bonds, and the arguments for the investment seemed strong: Every aquarium in the nation was successful and the independent consultants’ report projecting nearly 2 million visitors per year had the project safely paying its operating costs and $84 million debt service.
I wrote something silly, like the likelihood of “the public being at risk was about the same as a great white shark attacking the Tampa Bay Convention Center.”
Actually, the Aquarium’s challenge was far more formidable than I imagined. It was the lone attraction in a seedy Channel District that offered little. Attendance in the early years was below expectations and the venture quickly needed a bailout and many readers ridiculed my stance.
It provided an embarrassing lesson about blissfully accepting consultants’ rosy assurances. But the bigger lesson I learned was about staying the course despite setbacks. The Aquarium, in the long run, provided a critical example of the importance of investing in the future and staying the course with vision and resolve.
Though its lonely years in the Channel District were frustrating, the aquarium soon ignited investment throughout the neighborhood.
Former Tampa Bay Lightning Governor, David LeFevre, once told me The Tampa Bay Lightning’s decision to locate downtown was a direct result of the community’s decision to build the Aquarium.
Now the Aquarium is part of a thriving district that offers a sports arena, condo towers, a cruise ship terminal, restaurants, bars and retail shops. Soon, the University of South Florida will develop its new medical school nearby, part of a $1 billion development plan by Lightning owner, Jeff Vinik, aimed at attracting corporations, residents and retail to the neighborhood.
None of this would be happening were it not for The Florida Aquarium. It is highly unlikely, for that matter, that Tampa would have hosted the Republican National Convention, Women’s Final Four, Frozen Four and countless other major events if the Aquarium had not been built.
Yet the Aquarium is much more than an economic catalyst.
It has become a major attraction in its own right; one that is helping Tampa to attract more visitors who stay here a night or more, rather than briefly stopping by on the way to Disney World or the beach.
With education and conservation as its top priority, the Aquarium was created to tell the Florida water story. It instructed visitors about the state’s ecosystem; with alligators, otters, tarpons, sharks and many other lively creatures.
Still, the Aquarium staff, particularly under innovative Thom Stork, the late Aquarium president and CEO, realized the need to offer ever more fun and interactive experiences to keep families coming back.
But there has been no retreat from the education-conservation mission. Indeed, the aquarium’s vision is “To protect and restore our Blue Planet.” There is no mention of increasing attendance or revenues.
The Aquarium’s increasing financial success is allowing it to focus more than ever on research—just as those original advocates envisioned.
Its Center for Conservation is on the forefront of research efforts to save coral reefs, sea turtles and coastal sharks. It works with local restaurants to promote sustainable seafood. Ecotour cruises on Tampa Bay allow people to thrill at the sight of porpoises and other wildlife, while also learning about the Bay’s natural history.
The Aquarium is partnering with Tampa Electric to develop a research, recreation and education center near Big Bend Power Plant in Apollo Beach. They also are collaborating with Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission on operating a fish hatchery at the site.
All this has taken time. I was clueless in the editorial decades ago about the financial riptides the Aquarium would confront.
But The Florida Aquarium was able to survive it all and today—thanks to the enterprise and commitment of its Board and staff—is enhancing the economy and the environment. Turning the tide on the health of our blue planet, particularly here in Tampa Bay and the Gulf, will require more grit, more commitment and more support from our community. In the Water Stories that follow, it will be my great honor to share examples of our challenges and successes.