Clearwater Marine Aquarium expansion controversy

Short term and long term challenges for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium surfaced Tuesday as it sought city approval for some relatively minor changes at its facility on Island Estates. 

"I've got an amusement park across the street from me," nearby resident Ron Parham told Clearwater's Community Development Board. "Driving home every day I can't get past the people driving in, going in and out, there's no stop light." 

Five of the 12 property owners receiving official notice of the building request showed up to object, including Parham.  All but one said they are long time CMA supporters. 

"The mission of CMA is rescue and education," Kathleen Forde told the board. "It seems to me the new building that's being proposed is for commerce and entertainment."

CMA chief operating officer Frank Dame said the aquarium expects to attract 800,000 visitors this year, after last year's release of Dolphin Tale Two. However that number may fall to 600,000 in 2016 as Hollywood's stardust fades away. 

"The worst is over as far as congestion and traffic I think," he told the board.

In the end CMA won approval to build a new two-story building to house a new gift shop and a roomier roost for "Rufus", a California pelican featured in the motion pictures. 

A ticket booth and a concession stand built for the movies will also be made permanent.

"It was made of eighth inch plywood, it's rotting from the rain and everything else. All we're going to do is tear that down and build it exactly like it looks today," Dame told FOX 13 about one of the stands.

However, during and after the meeting, the immediate need for better parking surfaced.  The CMA has been using nearby surface parking lots to handle its crowds, and city officials said that must stop by the end of this year. Dame said several options are being explored, including parking employees on the mainland and ferrying them to the island.  Parking is the short term challenge.

Neighborly relations is the long term challenge. 

Earlier this year the CMA abandoned plans to build a larger facility on the mainland, and said it will expand at its island location. 

"We also are looking at a total master plan for phase two if you will, or plan b, from our exit from the aquarium downtown," Dame added. 

Once that is done, the attraction will explain its plans to the neighbors. 
"Until we decide we're not really communicating with the Island Estates residents because we're not sure what we're doing yet" Dame concluded.