A Champion for The Florida Aquarium

Tom Hall became an early champion of The Florida Aquarium because it appealed to two of his passions: economic development and environmental conservation. And, the public relations executive is pleased that the Aquarium has done precisely what he hoped it would do: revitalize downtown Tampa while becoming a leader in marine conservation.

Economic development was Hall’s primary concern in the 1980s when he first heard about the Aquarium, proposed for Clearwater, where it met a chilly reception. Hall felt it could be just what Tampa needed. As chair of the newly formed Tampa Downtown Partnership, he was looking for something to bring people downtown.

“We were the typical post-war downtown,” Hall said. “The people had left, and the retail followed. The whole east half of Tampa was blighted.  At night, the city shut down. Nobody was living downtown except for the inmates in the county jail.” Hall studied other aquariums and saw how the National Aquarium in Baltimore had spurred surrounding development.

“Baltimore was a working port like ours,” Hall recalled. “It didn’t have this beautiful waterfront, like St. Petersburg. But the Baltimore aquarium was transforming the city. When I saw what was happening there and I talked to people, I knew we had to get it.”

Thirty-two cities ended up vying for the aquarium, and Tampa prevailed, thanks in large part to Hall and other members of the Partnership board who signed personal notes to ensure up to a $500,000 interest-free loan for the project. The loan pledges matched an offer by St. Petersburg, and, as Hall says, “kept us in the game.” The personal notes, and the risks they represented, demonstrated impressive civic commitment on the part of those board members.

Even after winning the aquarium competition, Tampa leaders faced formidable obstacles. Hall said the original Aquarium team members were not astute fundraisers. He and the other key backers had to get heavily involved, eventually raising $18.5 million. Hall particularly praised James L. Ferman, Jr., who joined the effort as founding chairman, and said, “He deserves a lot of the credit.”

Hall credited former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman for making the Aquarium possible. She agreed to have the city back the construction bonds, with the expectation that attendance revenues would cover the debt service. The facility would be built on land leased from Port Tampa Bay.

The Florida Aquarium opened in 1995, and its remarkable shell-like structure became one of the Tampa’s signature buildings. Its telling of the Florida water story, from spring to ocean reef, was innovative and involving. However, attendance did not meet ambitious expectations in the early going when the Aquarium was virtually the only attraction in the area.

Finances were a struggle, and the city of Tampa eventually assumed the debt obligation. However, Hall never lost faith that the $84 million venture would prove a wise investment for the community and taxpayers. And events justified his confidence.

Because of the Aquarium and the efforts of the Tampa Downtown Partnership, led by Jim Cloar, Tampa Bay Lightning backers decided to also locate in the Channel District, building Amalie Arena nearby. “Now we had something to bring people downtown during the day and at night,” Hall said.

Other developments soon followed, with a number of residential buildings going up around the Aquarium. In contrast to those days when only inmates inhabited downtown, there now are more than 9,000 residents in the urban core, thanks in large part to The Florida Aquarium.  

“We probably have had $5 billion to $6 billion dollars spent on construction downtown,” Hall noted. “The momentum started with the Aquarium and then spread. If it hadn’t been for the Aquarium, we wouldn’t have [Lightning owner] Jeff Vinik’s project.”

Vinik, who bought the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2010, is pursuing a $3 billion “Water Street Tampa” development that will include the University of South Florida’s new medical school, as well businesses, hotels, restaurants, retail and residences.

Hall sees Tampa becoming a 24-hour downtown, where people live, work and play, just as he had envisioned more than 30 years ago. He is equally proud that the Aquarium has flourished and is attracting record crowds.

The Florida Aquarium recently completed its first major expansion, the $19.5 million “Rising Tides” project that includes conference rooms, a learning center, the Mosaic Center for special events, and an outdoor plaza for guests to enjoy.

Hall, the chairman of Tucker Hall public relations firm, is especially excited about how the Aquarium has evolved into a leader in marine conservation.

“You look at what we are doing with spawning corals, with our work with Cuba on their reefs, with our turtle rescue program; we’re doing amazing things,” he said.

In 2014, Hall donated $1.1 million to the Aquarium for its coral research and animal rescue and rehabilitation efforts. With coral reefs in decline around the world, Hall emphasized the Aquarium’s pioneering effort to reproduce corals and re-introduce them into the wild is “critically important,” not just to Florida, but to the planet.

Hall, who grew up in Lakeland and graduated from Florida Southern College, said he has always felt, “Florida did a terrible job as a caretaker of the environment.” He feels The Florida Aquarium, by exciting visitors about the ocean’s wonders while performing vital research, can help change that. And, unlike some who see conservation as a deterrent to economic development, Hall resolutely believes a healthy environment is essential to a robust economy.

He puts it simply and powerfully: “You can’t have a great civilization with a dead ocean.”

Story by Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune.