The feasibility study for an aquarium built on a portion of the long-empty City Marketplace site has been released, and the results were far from encouraging. Projections as originally conceived were that the aquarium would attract between 134,000 and 340,000 persons, at $15 each, against construction and start-up costs in excess of $30 million.
Given that key player Mote Marine of Sarasota has walked away from the project, it has been suggested the construction costs could be lowered by reducing the size of the facility by 50 percent and raising the admission price by 20 percent, hoping that the project may eventually break even. Cutting the size of the aquarium, while increasing prices, is comparable with a restaurant cutting portions in half while simultaneously increasing prices by 20 percent in the vain hope of increasing the number of dinners it serves.
The City of Punta Gorda and Charlotte County have not been immune from charging off on projects that don’t quite achieve their goal. Witness Herald Court Centre, Punta Gorda’s parking garage, a multiuse structure whose long-empty commercial space underscores the theory that government should remain out of the rental business. Let’s not even begin to discuss the Murdock Village debacle, courtesy of prior Charlotte County Boards of Commissioners.
The history of the long-vacant, privately held, City Marketplace site falls into a category unto itself. Another mistake will not serve the interests of the City of Punta Gorda. It is critical that all of the players move forward with caution, and that common sense be the rule. Does cutting away a swath of the City Marketplace site for such a project make sense? Is there a higher use that a private developer might find for the entire site?
In 2014 the Florida Legislature will again debate changes in the law that will permit the construction of casino-hotels. I am not advocating one way or the other in favor of a casino-hotel being erected on the entire City Marketplace site, nor do I know if the site is physically capable of such a development, but there are reasons why such a possibility might at least be explored.
The City Marketplace site is unique in its proximity to downtown, I-75, U.S. 41 and U.S. 17. It is located not quite midway between the two nearest casinos, in Immokalee and Tampa. As a commercial venture, casinos provide substantial employment, create a demand for hotel rooms and restaurant seats, and bring sizable revenue into a community.
There are substantial negatives to such an idea which may far outweigh any potential benefits. While kick-starting major commercial expansion in Punta Gorda’s downtown, a casino-hotel might change the nature of the downtown in ways that many residents may not find desirable. A casinohotel would require a height exemption under the Punta Gorda Land Development Regulations, something Punta Gorda’s City Council has often been reluctant to grant. It would increase local traffic and make restaurant reservations and parking more difficult to obtain. Some might argue that it would bring an undesirable element into the downtown that would ultimately flow into the surrounding neighborhoods and communities.
A casino hotel may very well not be a viable solution to the ugly gash in the middle of Punta Gorda’s otherwise lovely downtown. In fact, it may be best that it be avoided like the plague. However the concept shows that thinking outside of the box can often produce options worth exploring, beyond a second-rate aquarium that would be hard-pressed to compete with the superb Florida Aquarium in Tampa.
(First published in the Charlotte Sun, February 15, 2014)