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Builder gets started on a landmark project — a new aquarium

Willis Smith has a nearly 50-year history in the region.

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Sarasota aquarium and nonprofit research facility Mote Marine broke ground Nov. 13 on its long-anticipated Science Education Aquarium at Nathan Benderson Park.

The $130 million aquarium — after nearly three years of planning and budgeting, including $20 million from Sarasota County — is a landmark project for the area, north Sarasota County and east Manatee County, in addition to Lakewood Ranch-based Willis Smith Construction. The firm, founded in 1972, reported $130 million in revenue in 2019 and has some 90 employees.   

"It will be one of the most notable projects in Willis Smith Construction’s history," says Executive Vice President John LaCivita. "It truly is a once in a lifetime opportunity as a contractor to build such a landmark for our region and one the world will recognize. We could not be more excited to get things started."

But to get started on the facility, which will ultimately hold one million gallons of water, Willis Smith and its construction partner for the project, Tampa-based Whiting-Turner, will have to get rid of a lot of water.

At least temporarily.

That's because one of the trickier aspects of the project involves draining water as the construction crews build a peninsula to hold the 110,000-square-foot building.

At one end of Nathan Benderson Park in north Sarasota County, closest to the Mall at University Town Center, are three small lakes that rest side-by-side with only a small dividing strip of land between them. The builders will construct a pad mostly sitting in what now is the middle lake. That lake, the largest of the three and about 20 feet deep, must be drained completely.

That means pumping out 12 million gallons of water.

"This is where the building pad will be constructed and where the large equalization pipes will to be relocated which connect the two small lakes," LaCivita says. "We will drain the east and west lakes partially in order to relocate the pipes. Rain will not fill in the lakes once drained because we will have sump pumps running until the pipes are relocated and the building pad is 100% completed."

Meanwhile, the builders will bring in dirt to build the peninsula — 140,000 cubic yards of dirt being delivered by 7,000 truckloads.

Into that peninsula, and at a depth of 80 feet into the lake bottom, will go approximately 380 auger cast pilings. Those will stabilize the aquarium.

Jay Heater. Whiting-Turner Senior Project Managers Tony Harding and Allan Gladstone join Willis Smith Executive Vice President John LaCivita and Project Manager Pete Kauffman at the future site of the aquarium.
Jay Heater. Whiting-Turner Senior Project Managers Tony Harding and Allan Gladstone join Willis Smith Executive Vice President John LaCivita and Project Manager Pete Kauffman at the future site of the aquarium.

Most of Phase 1 involves that work, along with construction of a parking lot just to the west of the site. When finished, the peninsula will be bordered by the east and middle lakes.

The builders have hired eight subcontractors to work on Phase 1, which should take about six to eight months. The project is planned for two phases, with Phase 2 expected to take approximately 2 1/2 years.

Both Whiting-Turner and Willis Smith are working together on every aspect of the project. Willis Smith was selected as a local company that has made its mark on the region with projects such as the Sarasota National Cemetery Patriot Plaza, the LECOM School of Dentistry building, the Sarasota Opera house renovation, many projects with Ringling Museum and Ringling College and its current work constructing Waterside Place in Lakewood Ranch.

Whiting-Turner was selected on its national reputation and its familiarity with aquariums. It's work includes the Living Seashore in Baltimore, the Sea Turtle Hospital expansion in Charleston, S.C., and the expansion and renovation of the 100,000-square-foot Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium in Springfield, Mo. In the Wonders of Wildlife Museum and Aquarium, Whiting-Turner had to install 44 types of filtration systems. 

Willis Smith's Peter Kauffman and Whiting-Turner's Tony Harding and Allan Gladstone will be the senior project managers on site, while a team of about 12 project managers overall will direct the work.

LaCivita says the planning teams from the two companies have gotten along "like brothers."

"Our (family) culture at Willis Smith and their culture are very similar," LaCivita says.


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