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Commission OKs $10 million for Brevard Zoo's proposed aquarium at Port Canaveral

Aquarium expected to 'vastly increase' tourist tax revenue

BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – Brevard Zoo's proposed Indian River Lagoon-themed aquarium complex at Port Canaveral today received a $10 million funding boost, News 6 partner Florida Today reported.

The Brevard County Commission voted 3-1 in favor of allocating $10 million in revenue from the county's 5 percent Tourist Development Tax on hotel rooms and other short-term rentals toward the project, which has an estimated total price tag of $70 million.

Now comes the "heavy lift" of raising the additional money to start the project, Brevard Zoo Executive Director Keith Winsten said.

Winsten said the $10 million from the tourist tax would be part of a potential $20 million in public funding for the facility, with the other $10 million potentially coming from the state. Another $20 million would come from private donations from corporations or individuals, with $30 million coming from debt financing by the zoo. Winsten said that debt would be repaid with revenue from aquarium operations.

Winsten said he sees the project for the community as a "front porch on the lagoon."

It is being called the Indian River Lagoon Conservation Campus & Aquarium, and will be much more than a traditional aquarium, as it will have an extensive educational component focusing on the lagoon.

Voting in favor of the project were County Commission Chair Rita Pritchett, and Commissioners Jim Barfield and Curt Smith. Voting against was Commissioner John Tobia. County Commission Vice Chair Kristine Isnardi was absent.

Tobia said he felt the tourist tax money could be better spent to directly help in the cleanup of the Indian River Lagoon.

The $10 million in funding will be made in an eight-year grant agreement between the county and the zoo, with annual payments of $1.25 million.

Supporters of the project said the aquarium will attract visitors to the area, generating more tourism tax and sales tax revenue, including sales tax money target for lagoon cleanup efforts. They say it also will help local businesses like hotels, restaurants and retail shops.

Smith emphasized that tourists — and not local residents — are the ones who pay the hotel tax, adding that property taxes also are not part of the funding. He said the aquarium would "vastly increase" tourist tax revenue.

The $10 million for the aquarium project is part of the second phase of grants for tourism community development plan capital projects.

Also in the plan commissioners approved was $500,000 for exhibits at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge's Community Conservation Education Center.

The advisory Brevard County Tourist Development Council and its Capital Facilities Committee previously recommended funding for both projects.

For the budget year that begins Oct. 1, 14 percent of the Tourist Development Tax revenue — about $2.36 million — can be used for tourism-related capital facilities projects.

Pritchett said the allocations are "a pretty big deal" for the community and the tourism sector.

Tourism is a $2.1 billion-a-year industry in Brevard, according to Tourist Development Council member Laurilee Thompson, co-owner of Dixie Crossroads Seafood restaurant in Titusville.

Thompson was one of 12 speakers who addressed the County Commission in advance of its vote — all speaking in favor of one or both of the projects.

Brent Peoples, chairman of the board of the Melbourne Regional Chamber of East Central Florida, said the aquarium will attract visitors, "showcase the beauty of our county," create jobs, educate the public about the lagoon and generate additional tourist tax revenue for the county through increased hotel room rentals.

But Tobia wasn't thrilled about the two projects.

In comments after the meeting, Tobia said: "Rather than pay $10 million for fish tanks full of tainted lagoon water, perhaps we should consider putting this money toward thee infrastructure needed to prevent the water from being brown."

Tobia also opposed the $500,000 for the wildlife refuge's exhibits, saying: "The lagoon is dying, and we are giving $500,000 to build exhibits to teach people about things like lightning strikes. Instead of building an exhibit called 'What Do We Do for Wildlife,' maybe we should clean the lagoon to the point where its wildlife isn't dying at historic rates."

In approving the funding, the County Commission found that "each project advances, generates, grows and promotes tourism in the county, and therefore is eligible for Tourist Development Tax funds."

Each project must start construction by Sept. 18, 2020, or funding approval is withdrawn.