MANATEE COUNTY – Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium’s leadership is hoping for some funds from the Manatee County Tourist Development Council but TDC members are unsure that they can meet the $5 million request.
Dan Bebak, vice president of Aquarium, Education and Outreach at Mote, appeared before TDC members during a Sept. 16 meeting to ask for $5 million in funding spread over three years. The request includes $2 million in fiscal year 2020, $1.75 million in fiscal year 2021 and $1.25 million in fiscal year 2022.
If TDC members vote to approve the funding, followed by a vote of approval from Manatee County Commissioners and the potential approval of a budget amendment for the TDC, Bebak said the funds would go toward proposed expenditures at the Mote City Island campus. The City Island campus is expected to become a science and learning center when the new Mote aquarium is built adjacent to Nathan Benderson Park near the University Town Center Mall in Sarasota.
Proposed expenditures include estuary excursions, environmental kayaking experiences, behind-the-scenes science education opportunities, classroom technology, digital learning access, the development of an augmented reality aquarium tour, animal and exhibit care, guest experience enhancement and other upgrades at Mote.
Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore said she doesn’t believe that Manatee County has ever had much of a brand or advertising presence with Mote and it’s something that she’d like to see happen in the future. Before it does though, she said she’d like to see more detail from Mote concerning where the funds would be going. She also said that she’d like to see Manatee County represented in both the City Island science center on Longboat Key and in the new aquarium when it’s built.
TDC funds must be spent on specific endeavors to encourage tourism to Manatee County. One way in which funds can be spent is to buy advertising and another is to create an exhibit or event that drives people to the area. Either way, the TDC needs to see a return on the funds in the form of economic impact to Manatee County.
TDC member and Anna Maria Commissioner Doug Copeland said he questions spending $5 million on advertising to a group of people who are already in the area.
Bebak said that of Mote’s annual memberships, 58% come from Manatee and Sarasota counties with the remainder from other areas. Of the total attendance numbers, 13% come from Manatee County, 18% come from Sarasota County and 69% come from other areas. Of that 69%, 12% come from a drivable range of eight surrounding counties and 88% come from outside of that drivable area.
“In my heart, I support the cause,” Whitmore said, adding that she needs to see how the funds will benefit Manatee County to help her and other county commissioners to justify the expense to residents.
Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston said he was also not prepared to vote on the funding request at the Sept. 16 meeting.
“I love the concept. We have a lot of asks right now,” he said. “The devil’s in the details and we need the details. Convince me.”
TDC members voted to have representatives from Mote come back at a future meeting to present a budget of how funds would be used and ideas on how those funds would benefit Manatee County tourism.