Mote nixes grant request
PUNTA GORDA — Mote Marine Laboratory, in a letter to city and Charlotte County officials Wednesday, withdrew its request for BP oil-spill settlement money that had been sought to build an aquarium here, at least until Mote completes a feasibility study.
The study is needed to determine the size, scope and costs of the project before Mote requests funding from the federal RESTORE Act, wrote Dan Bebak, Mote’s vice president of projects.
He alluded to a list of Charlotte County projects proposed for funding under the act that had included a request for $38 million for the aquarium.
That proposal “may not reflect the actual budget numbers — which we will be unable to determine until the feasibility proposal and study is complete, probably within the next six months,” Bebak wrote.
“Like many in the community, Mote is excited about the idea of the project,” he added. “But we also want to ensure that we are performing all due diligence in an appropriate fashion.”
The letter was written two days after a project-review committee that included Mote board members, senior staffers and some Charlotte County community leaders ranked consultants vying for the contract to provide the study.
The committee selected one firm that was a “clear standout,” but a contract has yet to be negotiated, so Mote was not releasing the name of that consultant, said Nadine Slimak, Mote spokeswoman.
“Once we have a firm idea of the study’s cost, we will seek community support for the effort,” she said.
Slimak was asked whether the letter signals a reluctance by some Mote board members to move forward with the project.
“We would be remiss in moving a building project forward without performing our due diligence to make sure that we are making sound financial decisions,” she replied in an email response. “We cannot act in a way that would threaten our existing research or other programs in any way.”
Mote last fall applied for a federal economic-development grant to fund the study. That request is pending.
The West Coast Inland Navigation District has contributed some $80,000 to fund Mote’s educational-outreach program in Charlotte County. Mote scientists kicked off a lecture series Thursday as part of that program.
Punta Gorda Mayor Bill Albers said he initially reacted to Bebak’s letter with “a tiny bit of concern” that it may signal a loss of momentum for the aquarium. However Albers said he spoke to Mote’s vice president for research, Bill Crosby, at Thursday night’s lecture. Crosby assured him Mote was “very excited” to be considering the project.
“Nothing has changed,” said Rob Humpel, president of Florida Premier Contractors, which has worked with Mote to explore concepts for the aquarium. “Mote still needs to do a couple of things before they can say this is going to happen.”
Even if the study showed the aquarium would work for Mote, the marine lab would have to raise the capital to build it, he noted.
However, if those steps can be accomplished, the “community will do everything it can to make it go,” Humpel added.