SARASOTA — After two years of asking, Mote Marine finally got the commitment Wednesday they’d been seeking from Sarasota County.
A unanimous board of county commissioners agreed to commit $20 million to Mote Marine’s ambitious plan for an aquarium at Nathan Benderson Park in the vicinity of University Parkway and Interstate 75.
While commissioners agreed that the county’s tourist development tax needs to be the source of funding for the project, just where in the allocation of those pennies the money will come from remains an open question.
Commissioners agreed also Wednesday to kick that question to their Tourist Advisory Council for a recommendation.
The county charges a 5% tax on hotel or other short-term rentals. Tourists staying at area hotels make up the bulk of revenues coming from the tax which amounted to $23.5 million in 2019.
Those five pennies are spread among activities such as tourist promotion, beach maintenance and renourishment, sports facilities, and other attractions. Spending for the aquarium would be a permissible use of the funds county budget staff told commissioners.
“These cultural and institution gems make the community what it is,” former Commissioner Paul Caragiulo, who now chairs the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, told his former colleagues during open to the public, urging them to support the request.
Mote Marine hopes to construct the new aquarium on 11 acres in the park which the county is leasing to the world-renowned facility which had its beginnings in Englewood for 40 years. The project is estimated to cost $130 million.
Mote representatives have told county officials both publicly and in private conversations that they needed the county’s financial commitment to spur the organization’s fund-raising efforts.
They also hope to obtain financial support from the state legislature during the current legislative session.
Besides using the tourist development tax to fund the request, county budget staff also offered commissioners an option of using the general fund or property taxes. Commissioners nixed that idea quickly.
“I oppose raising the millage to pay for this,” Commissioner Nancy Detert said., with Commissioners Charles Hines and Alan Maio expressing similar thoughts.
That left the tourist development tax as the only viable option.
With the limited revenues raised by that tax, what the county will likely do, Deputy County Administrator and Chief Financial Officer Steve Botelho said, is to borrow the $20 with repayment over 30 years, pledging penny sales tax revenues as collateral, but repaying with tourist development tax funds.
Commissioners still expressed angst at the prospect of reducing the allocations for some portions of the tourist development tax to pay for their $20 million commitment.
“Is this going to be so unique and so special to the community that we have to take away from others?” Hines asked. “I believe it is.”
Still, as Maio pointed out, commissioners and staff have two budget cycles into 2022 before the county has to begin paying a loan back, giving them sufficient time for the advisory board to weigh in, and for commissioners to make the ultimate decision.