In 2012, Charlotte County was aflutter with the possibility that Mote Marine Laboratory might build a new aquarium in downtown Punta Gorda near Charlotte Harbor.
It would have been a fitting comeback, in a sense.
Mote Marine was launched in the mid-1950s as a one-woman research facility in Placida. The Vanderbilt family was so impressed during a visit from ichthyologist Eugenie Clark (“The Shark Lady”) that they lured her to the area with a lab of her own.
The Cape Haze Marine Laboratory operated in Charlotte County for five years, then moved north to Siesta Key and later to a 16-acre site on City Island in Sarasota.
That’s where Mote now draws thousands of visitors every year to its aquarium, while at the same time conducting marine research.
The possibility that Mote might build in Punta Gorda was an exciting one. But — no big surprise — the idea never got past flotation stage.
Mote opened an office in upscale Boca Grande, with a kickoff that features former First Lady Laura Bush, a longtime Boca Grande visitor. And earlier this year, it got serious about a new aquarium — in the Sarasota area, this time.
Again, no big surprise.
It’s a move that seems logical and beneficial to both the nonprofit research organization and the public, which is being asked to support it.
Mote wants to build a $130 million aquarium on about 12 acres of the 600-acre Nathan Benderson Park, off Interstate 75 near University Parkway (Exit 213). The county park has a large, manmade lake and a rowing center there.
Initial plans called for a four-story, glass-covered building shaped like a ship narrow at the bottom and flaring out at the top with animated sharks projected on the glass exterior. It would be a stunning vision, especially at night.
“I think we’re going to have to build a scenic overlook on I-75 because people are going to pull over and say, ‘What the heck was that?’” said Sarasota County Chair Nancy Detert.
Yes, it’s a potential stunner that would undoubtedly multiply the number of aquarium visitors and the lab’s public image and impact.
At a public cost, though.
First comes what is essentially a gift of public property. There are technical and legal details that involve zoning districts and lease-sale arrangements, but the deal that won initial approval of county commissioners last month would give Mote the property it needs for a nominal sum.
Second, the county would contribute $20 million from tourist development tax revenues. It’s an appropriate use of tourist tax money, but that fund is getting smaller and the needs are growing.
Also, the commission shifted money from tourism promotion to repairs to Ed Smith Stadium, the spring training complex in Sarasota. This came despite howls from the tourism business community, struggling during the dismal Summer of Red Tide.
The aquarium idea is solid, though, certainly moreso than the old Punta Gorda trial balloon. The land deal is worthy. So, too, is the contribution of $20 million.
This would be another big-time attraction for Sarasota County, highly visible and extremely accessible. (The current aquarium is not.)
Mote has begun a campaign to raise the $130 million for the building. If it can do it, the relatively small public contribution seems appropriate for Sarasota County and an excellent tourism/educational opportunity for Southwest Florida.