Former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman said some daring was required to find a home for The Florida Aquarium.
She recalled: “It had originally been planned for Clearwater and then it proposed all over the place over here. It looked like it was going to go on Harbour Island. But finally [the late Harbour Island developer] Finn Caspersen called me and said it was not what they envisioned. It was dragging on and on.
“I remember I called [Tampa Port Authority Executive Director] Emmett Lee and told him we were going to put The Aquarium on port land and we were going to have a news conference at 3 p.m. to announce it. Emmett didn’t know what to do. They had never done anything like that at the port.”
Lee, Freedman stressed, wasn’t opposed, but the Tampa Port Authority always had focused on maritime operations. This represented a radical departure.
Moreover, as she announced the proposed site in March 1990, it still would require approval of the Tampa Port Authority Board. At the time, the board makeup did not include the mayor as it does now. The plan could have collapsed. But she felt action was necessary. “This had been kicked around for more than two years. It was close to being lost.”
Freedman credited Ferman Motor Company’s Jim Ferman, who was chairman of The Aquarium Board, and other business leaders with helping port officials, and the community at-large, understand the venture’s merits.
She had been a supporter of The Aquarium when it was proposed for Harbour Island, where the developers ultimately found they could not provide sufficient parking. There also was talk of building on the site of the old Curtis Hixon Convention Center [now Curtis Hixon Park] on the Hillsborough River.
But Freedman felt building on the waterfront port property would have greater economic impact and revitalize a Channelside area then dominated by dilapidated warehouses, vacant lots and rundown office buildings.
“I had seen how the Baltimore’s waterfront had developed after it built the National Aquarium and wanted to do what they did here. It took 20 years for it all to happen, but I knew it would come, but I am not sure everyone else did.”
Under the financing plan, the bonds for the $84 million construction project were issued in the city’s name, but were to be paid back with operating revenue from The Aquarium. This was similar to how the city had made possible the construction of Tampa International Airport. But Freedman also required The Aquarium to provide 20 percent liquid equity that would be used to service the bonds before any city funds would be used. “I really tried to protect taxpayers. But they didn’t make [attendance] projections. I learned that those kinds of projections are almost always wrong.”
In retrospect, the attendance of 500,000 or so actually seems robust, but it was not close to the consultant’s predictions of 1.6 million. The city eventually provided help.
Freedman, who left office in March 1995 the day before The Aquarium opened, said, “I got blamed for it, but I knew in the long run it would work.”
The isolated location was a challenge in the early going. But that began to change as nearby developments, including the Amelie Arena and new cruise ship terminals, were completed.
Freedman said The Aquarium evolved, making changes that made the visitor experience both fun and educational. “The whole concept from the start was about education. But people also liked to be entertained.
“Like anything else, it had to be fine-tuned. But they did that. It’s proved to be a good investment for taxpayers with a huge return. Look at everything that is happening down there.”
Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik’s Water Street Tampa development, which includes the new University of South Florida medical school, is expected to be at least a $3 billion project.
Freedman got regular reports on The Aquarium while it was under construction. “When something like that is built for the public, you have to act like it’s your own house.”
Freedman admiringly recalls the labors of Ferman, Caspersen, late attorney David Kerr, late appraiser Charlie Knight and others who contributed to The Aquarium-Channelside redevelopment effort. “There was a lot of blood, sweat and tears put into this.”
As pleased as she is with how The Florida Aquarium became a major attraction and economic catalyst, she cites a housing program that allowed low-income people to buy homes as her favorite accomplishment as mayor. “I still have people tell me they are still living in their Challenge Fund house.”
But she also is extremely proud of her role in making The Florida Aquarium a reality. Prior to the pandemic, she could look out her window and watch cruise ships cross Tampa Tampa. She found them representative of all the diverse business activity The Aquarium “helped make possible. It was amazing that property was never used for anything like this.”
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...