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Murphy to Mote: Fish or cut bait

ANNA MARIA – Dr. Michael Crosby and his Mote Marine Laboratory associates have until Friday to present the final conceptual plans for an educational outreach center on the City Pier.

Mote’s latest plans are expected to be presented during a special Anna Maria City Commission meeting on Friday, April 22 at 2 p.m. The commission is willing to abandon the project if Friday’s deadline is missed.

On Sept. 30, Mote and the city of Anna Maria entered into a five-year, rent-free lease agreement that would allow Mote to occupy the larger city-owned building at the T-end of the City Pier. The smaller pier building is occupied by the City Pier Grill & Bait Shop.

Murphy to Mote: Fish or cut bait
The pier building’s bayside windows provide a view of Tampa Bay. – Joe Hendricks | Sun

In September, Mote Marine staff member Kevin Cooper said he expected Mote to complete its interior buildout and exhibit installation by March and open the facility soon thereafter.

As of Thursday, April 14, Mote officials and their contracted architect, Barron Schimberg, had not yet submitted their final plans for the long-delayed facility. Schimberg previously served as the city’s contracted architect for the pier replacement project completed in 2020.

Murphy to Mote: Fish or cut bait
The original plans presented in early 2021 included live marine exhibits. – Mote Marine | Submitted

The original plans that Mote presented in early 2021 featured live marine exhibits. In January, Mote provided the city with an alternate plan that featured virtual exhibits instead. Murphy said then that the city commission would ultimately decide whether the Mote facility includes live exhibits, virtual exhibits or both.

Project update

On Thursday, April 14, Murphy provided commissioners with a project update.

“We’ve had numerous false starts. I anticipated having a proposal for you today. I also anticipated having a proposal for you two weeks ago and a month ago. None of those have happened. For various reasons, the goal post has been moved several times. We’re now at the point where there’s no more moving the goal post. I had a conversation with Dr. Crosby last night. I told Dr. Crosby how disappointed I was that we didn’t have a proposal ready. They have all the information necessary to put together a proposal. This latest delay was caused by the architect. He had all the information, but didn’t have the time to put it together,” Murphy said.

“We have a lease contract that we signed back in September and that lease contract gave them 180 days to produce and/or request an extension. I’m here today to give you two options. You can enforce the contract as it is and decide to not extend it any further. This is the end of it and we tell Mote farewell and move on. The other option is that they have a proposal to us by Friday of next week. I propose to you that we’ve gone this far and that we go one more week,” Murphy said.

Murphy expects Friday’s presentation to include visuals, live exhibit examples and non-negotiable start and completion dates.

Commission feedback

In September, Commissioner Mark Short opposed the commission’s 4-1 decision to pursue an educational outreach center rather than a full-service restaurant or open-air cantina.

Murphy to Mote: Fish or cut bait
Commissioner Mark Short expressed his frustration during the April 14 meeting. – Joe Hendricks | Sun

During the April 14 meeting, Short said, “This Mote exhibit was supposed to be done now and we don’t even have the final plans yet. There’s been delay after delay. There’s nothing to show a year after the commission agreed to move forward with Mote and 180 days after the lease was signed. I’m fine giving them another week, but I just don’t think this is the right path to go down.”

“It’s been an extreme disappointment,” Commissioner Deanie Sebring said.

Sebring said the proposed shift to virtual exhibits seems to be an attempt by Mote to use the City Pier to advertise the new Mote Science Education Aquarium being built in Sarasota.

“What they offered us was something that was going to be quite unique and incredible and it’s turned into nothing. It’s disheartening. I’m getting a bad taste in my mouth thinking they’re not going have any live exhibits,” Sebring said.

Murphy to Mote: Fish or cut bait
The alternate plans provided in January proposed virtual exhibits. – Mote Marine | Submitted

Commissioner Robert Kingan said, “I completely agree. I think we should give them one more week, but that’s it. They’ve had ample time to make preparations.”

“I kind of agree, but my vision is a little longer-range. I think this project has the potential to be fabulous. I’m happy to give them another week,” Commissioner Jon Crane said.

“I agree with all of you. I’m disappointed that it’s taking so long, but I do think it will be a good project,” Commissioner Carol Carter said.

Murphy told Mote officials the city doesn’t want virtual exhibits.

“What we signed up for was live exhibits,” he said.

“The commission has to decide: Do you fish or cut bait?” he added.

The commission unanimously agreed to give Mote until Friday to present its final plans.

County support

In June 2021, the Manatee County Commission agreed to provide $500,000 for the design, interior buildout and installation of the Mote facility, with Mote covering the remaining $40,000-$50,000 in estimated start-up costs. Mote also agreed to staff the facility at its own expense for the duration of the lease, with the city covering the utility expenses.

County Commission Chair Kevin Van Ostenbridge attended Thursday’s meeting. He left before the Mote discussion ensued, but he addressed the commission before departing.

Murphy to Mote: Fish or cut bait
County Commission Chair Kevin Van Ostenbridge encouraged city officials to continue supporting the proposed Mote Marine facility. – Joe Hendricks | Sun

“I know there have been a significant number of delays. I share your frustration, but I think the project is a great project. I advocated strongly for the project and I was able to get our board to unanimously approve a half-million dollars for the project. I think it will be worth the wait,” Van Ostenbridge said.

“I did speak with Dr. Crosby this morning and he assured me that Mote now has all the information they need to move forward with the engineering. They want to make sure the pier can hold what they put out there and withstand the weight of the exhibits. There will be aquariums. There will be live exhibits. It sounds like things are headed in the right direction,” he said.

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