25th Anniversary Blog - Proud of our Past, Looking to the Future

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25th Anniversary Blog - Proud of our Past, Looking to the Future

During this 25th anniversary year of The Florida Aquarium, we will explore its history, exhibits, and the diverse individuals who helped it evolve into a major tourist attraction, a pioneering research facility, and a forceful voice on behalf of the Blue Planet. – Editors.

The Florida Aquarium is now recognized as a resounding success. Ranked as one of the best aquariums in the nation, it attracts record crowds while also conducting ground-breaking marine research. It also ignited a continuing renaissance of downtown Tampa. 

But as the Aquarium’s 25th anniversary year begins, it is useful to remember how much the project had to overcome.

Jim Ferman, the Tampa businessman and civic leader who helped shepherd the project from “site selection through construction,” can testify that the Aquarium triumph required perseverance, diplomacy, imagination…and a thick skin.

Ferman, president of Ferman Motor Company, signed on early as a supporter.  The details were complex; the financial and political obstacles were daunting.  Critics could be cruel.

“It was one of the best volunteer jobs I ever had and one of the worst,” Ferman told me recently in the headquarters of his company, which represents 12 automotive franchises in 11 dealerships throughout Central Florida.

 

“But the good memories far outweigh the bad, and the bad ones taught me valuable lessons.”

Those bad memories stemmed mostly from financial difficulties, now largely forgotten, in the early years.  But as chairman of the Aquarium Board of Directors, as the venture evolved from concept to concrete, steel, and glass, Ferman weathered criticism from commentators and politicians. Letter writers to The Tampa Tribune Editorial Department, where I worked at the time, derided “The Fish Bowl” when it initially fell short of attendance and revenue projections. Champions of the project were mocked.

That attitude now seems pathetically short-sighted, but at the time, it wasn’t clear that the Aquarium would fulfill its promise to be a vibrant tourist attraction and economic stimulus. There was even talk at one time of selling it to Busch Gardens. It took grit and foresight for Ferman and his fellow supporters to stay the course.

Ferman never doubted the merits of the venture and has never regretted his involvement.

“I am proud as I can be that I said, ‘yes’,” he said.

That “yes” came at a lunch at The University Club, where Clearwater businessman Bill Crown asked Ferman to chair the Aquarium board at a critical juncture.

Crown had initially wanted the facility in Clearwater. Indeed, The Florida Aquarium began as the Clearwater Marine Science Center. Crown envisioned a captivating attraction that would generate revenue for marine research. But he could not find an appropriate Clearwater site and turned to Tampa, where he quickly sought Ferman’s help. The project appealed to Ferman, who was a passionate SCUBA diver and who relished Florida’s outdoors. (His headquarters is full of Florida artwork.)

Ferman agreed to become chair and got to work building community support, raising funds, and assembling a leadership team.

The personable Jim Stuart, a Clearwater businessman, served as Aquarium president in the early stages, mostly working without compensation. Ferman said Stuart did an outstanding job establishing the basic framework, but as the project progressed, financial backers wanted someone with aquarium experience, which Stuart lacked. Ever the gentleman, Stuart resigned but continued to assist the effort.

Ferman and team chose John Racanelli, the marketing director of the highly successful Monterey Bay Aquarium, as the Aquarium president who would oversee its development.

The engaging Racanelli had an extensive background in marine attractions.

“He started out swimming with dolphins and worked his way up,” Ferman said. “He told me he was so excited when he got his first promotion and had a job ‘where you didn’t leave a puddle behind you’.”

At first, it appeared the Aquarium would be located on Harbour Island, where financier-developer Finn Caspersen was building a “festive retail” and residential complex. But Ferman said the island lacked adequate parking, so the Aquarium backers looked to Port of Tampa (now Port Tampa Bay) property on Channelside.

Ferman recalled inspecting the site: “It was old warehouses, and docks like you had all around Florida then. But it was on the water. I remember thinking it is the right location, but nothing else was built here. “

He knew there were plans for retail development and cruise ship terminals nearby, so he felt stores, restaurants, and residences eventually would surround the attraction. He proved correct, though it took a little longer than he had hoped.

The port property had another advantage.

“One of the attractions was the old Coca-Cola plant that operated nearby was being decommissioned, and the extra land was just what we needed for extra property for parking.”

As construction proceeded, Ferman and Racanelli came up with a creative plan to obtain the Coke land.

The coral reef tank had been completed and filled with water, though it didn’t have fish yet.

“They took of a video of John and me dressed in business suits outside the tanks. Then we put on masks and fins and dove into the water. We lifted our masks, and one of us drank Diet Coke and the other red Coke.”

When Ferman and Racanelli met with Coke officials in Atlanta to ask for a sponsorship, they showed the video.

 “The outcome was Coke sold us the property at half price. It was valued at $12 million, and it was sold at $6 million.”

Ferman said the financing plan for the $84 million project was creative, utilizing bond money and private investment. The city of Tampa would back the bond, but the debt service would be covered by attendance revenue. Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman supported the effort but understandably wanted financial protections. Ferman and the board raised $16 million to buffer against shortfalls.

With a study by independent consultants finding the attraction would attract more than the annual 1.8 million visitors needed to cover the bond payments, it seemed a sensible arrangement.

When the Aquarium opened on March 31, 1995, it was praised widely for its imaginative telling of The Florida Water Story, from springs to open ocean. Ferman recalls how in those pre-cellphone days, “clever audio wands provided a narrative of the fish collections.”

“The way we were presenting things was seen as game-changing.”

But there also were some stumbles.

“We wanted to open while Sandy was still mayor because it wouldn’t have happened without her. But she was leaving office, and it was getting down to the wire. We thought we could do it, but we weren’t quite there. We had the grand opening, and for some reason, the water was a little cloudy. Some people were disappointed.”

While such matters were corrected and most visitors were delighted, another issue arose.

Ferman praised the original marine science team for creating a visionary presentation of Florida Water Story. But the top biologists insisted the attraction should focus on education, not entertainment, he said.

“Cartoon fish on birthday name tags weren’t permitted. They wanted to show environmental challenges, not entertain people. The mission was noble, but you can’t compete with Busch and Disney by being strictly an educational facility.”

Soon it became apparent attendance was not meeting projections, and the attraction began eating into the reserves.

Ferman was sometimes a target for critics, but he labored on, continuing to commit his time and money to a project he felt confident would benefit the community and the environment

Early missteps undoubtedly play some part in the attendance shortfalls. But it became clear the bigger issue was that the consultants’ projections - based on Busch Gardens and Disney numbers - were simply unrealistic, particularly given the Aquarium’s then-isolated location.

Indeed, in retrospect, it is impressive it drew 500,000-plus crowds in those early years, but the numbers weren’t close to producing the revenue needed for the debt service.

So, there were some tough years that tested the Aquarium backers’ commitment. Fortunately, they persevered, and the treacherous financial seas would in time calm.

Ferman said things stabilized when the city issued more favorable bonds and eventually took over ownership of the Aquarium, relieving it of the debt service.

Ferman feels Racanelli did a mostly superb job of opening the Aquarium but said he was caught in the political friction caused by the shortfall. Racanelli resigned and would go on to become the highly successful president and CEO of Baltimore National Aquarium.

Jack Butcher, the newly retired publisher of The Tampa Tribune and a member of the attraction’s board, agreed to take over as interim president after Racanelli’s departure.

It was no surprise to those of us who knew Butcher that he calmly worked with staff to improve the finances, operations, and outlook.

“He did a very nice job,” Ferman said. “Things got stable. … Along the way, we overhauled the mission.”

Ferman praises subsequent CEOs Jeff Swanigan, Thom Stork, and now Roger Germann, all of whom had attraction expertise. In their own way, they all concentrated on how to best entertain, educate, and protect the “Blue Planet.”

“We began to have fun things, such as Explore A Shore and bringing in traveling exhibits. We had birthday parties and didn’t worry if the name tags had anthropomorphically incorrect fish.

“We started getting good press, and people wanted to take their kids there. They found when it’s cold outside, it’s a great place to go, and when it’s hot outside, it’s a great place to go.”

 And the Aquarium began fulfilling its promise as an economic catalyst, attracting development throughout the Channelside area, including the Amalie Area, the History Center, and numerous residential and commercial enterprises. Tampa Bay Lightning Owner Jeff Vinik’s 50-acre Water Street Tampa development, which will include the University of South Florida’s new medical school, alone is expected to be a $3 billion project.

Those benefits, Ferman said, underscore the benefits of the community’s original Aquarium investment. 

 “It brought the Lightning down here, so much more. We would have never had the Republican National Convention, those Finals Fours, and so many other events if the Aquarium hadn’t been built here.”

But the Tampa native is equally proud of how the Aquarium has increasingly focused on research that aids Florida’s imperiled marine life. With the Florida Reef Tract rapidly dying, the scientists at The Florida Aquarium’s Center for Conservation in Apollo Beach are discovering novel ways to reproduce healthy corals in the laboratory.

Tampa Electric Co. donated the 400 acres for the Center for Conservation campus, and Ferman, who is on the TECO board, assisted in establishing the partnership.

Ferman remains on the Aquarium’s Foundation, but says otherwise he is only “peripherally involved.”

He has confidence in “the new generation of leadership,” and is impressed with Germann’s management and the diversity he has achieved on the current board.

Despite enduring some challenging times, Ferman has never regretted his Aquarium experience and urges other business leaders to become similarly involved.

“When I have given speeches about why you ought to volunteer, I stress that you get the opportunity to learn things you would never learn if you stick to your primary occupation. “

He does add wryly, “Of course, I never thought I would be part of a theme park that would almost default on a bond issue.”

But even that painful time showed him the value of looking forward when you are on a “difficult path. You need to keep your eyes on the roots and rocks and holes, but you don’t want to ignore your destination.”

He said Ferman Motor Company, which celebrates its 125th anniversary this year, utilized the same strategy in overcoming the great recession.

 

As The Florida Aquarium nears its 25th anniversary, Ferman is pleased he had a hand in making it become a reality. But he is far more satisfied with what The Florida Aquarium has become.

 “It has fulfilled its exact mission. It generates money for environmental research. It celebrates Florida water and is teaching generations to come about marine life. It makes us all conscious of what needs to be protected and preserved.”

 

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joe Guidry, a Tampa native, worked for The Tampa Tribune Company for more than 40 years. He joined The Tampa Tribune Editorial Department in 1984, later became Deputy Editorial Page editor and took over as Opinion Page Editor in 2008, a position he held until the Tribune ceased publication in May 2016. Read more...