CLEARWATER — When Clearwater Marine Aquarium officials said they would significantly cut costs for a new downtown facility originally estimated at $160 million, they really meant it.
The price tag for final plans released Friday is down to $68 million for an attraction that will bring visitors behind the scenes of the aquarium’s marine rehab program made famous in the family film Dolphin Tale.
Rather than erecting a gargantuan building with great fish displays and stadium seats for dolphin shows in the traditional style of the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, new designs show an aquatic center where guests can watch staff help rehabilitate sea turtles and dolphins from observation decks.
The aquarium is saving big money by putting 50,000 of the 200,000-square-foot facility outdoors, including a covered banquet area with views of Clearwater Harbor, said Frank Hibbard, a member of CMA’s board of directors.
The novel design appears to be a departure from CMA’s first ambition to build a facility that rivals the nation’s greatest, busiest aquariums, but the new emphasis on the group’s active marine rescue program may have a stronger appeal with its core audience – fans of movie star dolphin Winter.
Those fans will likely flock to theaters for Dolphin Tale 2, which opens Sept. 12, to see stars Harry Connick Jr. and Ashley Judd playing with the dolphin that swims with a prosthetic tail and other rescued sea creatures, an experience guests can have at the future aquarium, CEO David Yates said.
The interest in the movie will be a key part of the aquarium’s fund-raising efforts in the coming months, which will include $16 million in private donations, a $23 million construction loan and upward of $19.5 million in county tourism tax dollars.
If fund raising is successful, the aquarium plans an Oct. 15 groundbreaking at the current site of Clearwater City Hall.