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Clearwater Marine Aquarium expansion plans coming soon

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is planning to stay exactly where it is. A previous plan to move into a larger facility in downtown Clearwater was abandoned because it would have taken too long.

Instead, CEO David Yates is planning to rebuild and expand the current facility located just off the Clearwater Causeway. Yates called the plans that have not been released yet “exciting” and said they will solve all of the aquarium’s issues with space and parking as well as those of neighbors who are tired of all the traffic.

The aquarium is situated in Island Estates, a mostly residential area near Clearwater Beach. Neighbors have long complained about traffic flowing into the community as a result of the traffic. Mild annoyance turned to outrage for some as the aquarium got more and more popular following the box office smash Dolphin Tale that featured CMA’s own Winter the Dolphin.

But during a Tiger Bay luncheon Wednesday Yates, without going into detail, promised that the expansion would reduce traffic to far less than what it is today.

“It’s something we’re really cognizant about,” he said.

The decision was made to abandon the idea of moving into the old Clearwater City Hall on prime downtown property in April because the plan was too expensive and too complicated to be completed in a time frame that would have suited Yates’ goals.

While he doesn’t have a timeline on the expansion project yet, Yates said it’s going to be a quick process and won’t be a “4-5 year process.”

In the meantime, Yates is not backing down on his fierce goals to continue to grow CMA’s popularity both at home and abroad.

Yates was interviewed for his gig as CEO the same week crews rescued its now famous star, Winter the Dolphin. He came on as head of a non-profit that was just weeks away from failing with employees who didn’t know whether or not they’d be getting their paychecks.

But he immediately shifted the way the non-profit did business. He began pushing better merchandise to expand revenue and immediately looked for a story to share with the world. That story was Winter.

It took years for Yates to get Clearwater’s tale-less dolphin onto the big screen, but the effort has turned CMA into a wild success. Last year the aquarium welcomed more than 800,000 visitors.

But the question always pops up, what happens when there is no more Winter? Yates answers that question with action. He’s in the process of producing a digital TV show where the story is about the people who make CMA run and the mission they tackle each and everyday.

“It’s less Winter and more of what we do,” Yates said. “She will always benefit us, but she’s not our only story.”

After this TV series, Yates plans to do more. And he said CMA has a good relationship with Warner Brothers for future projects as well. But he didn’t have much to say on whether there’d be a Dolphin Tale 3.

Yates described the organization’s success in terms of its unique offerings. There are other aquariums in the area that visitors could choose to visit instead of CMA, but that decision would be based on what those visitors are looking to see.

The Florida Aquarium in downtown Tampa is a more traditional aquarium experience. Mote Marine Aquarium in Sarasota emphasizes research. For CMA, it’s about rescue and rehabilitation. And CMA offers opportunities for visitors to catch a glimpse of that.

“We let visitors watch surgeries,” Yates gave as an example.

Asked whether the aquarium was generating enough charitable donations to remain successful, Yates gave a confident “yes” noting that most of the aquarium’s revenue actually comes from admission.

CMA will launch a capital campaign sometime “soon” to pay for costs to expand its facility. Yates said plans for the expansion are almost done and to expect them “soon.”

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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