Tampa’s “Big Dig”

Thom Stork, The Florida Aquarium’s entrepreneurial president, is not one to venerate the status quo. He knows he’s in the entertainment business and is always looking for an edge – and a reason for people to make return visits. Hence, new attractions.

The latest, if expansion plans-in-the-works materialize, would include new dolphin, sea lion and giant shark exhibits, along with a reconfigured lobby. Along with a price tag of at least $40 million.

If the Aquarium’s board of directors gives the go-ahead this fall, the Aquarium would need to tap private donors. The result: Tampa’s “Big Dig” – putting the arm on the private sector to dig deep as never before.

This city is no fountainhead of corporate headquarters, where the big decision-makers can take care of their own. Nor is it home to Bernie Marcus-type sugar daddies who will just flat out bankroll a project – as Home Depot co-founder Marcus did with Atlanta’s $200-million Georgia Aquarium.

And remember the Florida Aquarium will have to make its donor case in the context of some other serious fund-raising around town. To wit: Tampa’s Riverwalk and new art museum. Neither can happen without an unprecedented level of private giving.

The bottom line on visions about Tampa’s protean downtown is paying for it. The private tab will be coming due. Before anyone steps onto a completed Riverwalk or into the new museum or expanded Aquarium, a lot of private citizens and business interests – the quality-of-life beneficiaries — will have to step up financially for Tampa’s “Big Dig.”

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