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Big year ahead for $132M aquarium project in Sarasota County corridor

The project, shaped like a seaworthy ship, nears final stages of construction.

  • By Jay Heater
  • | 5:00 a.m. January 21, 2024
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
The Mote Science Education Aquarium will be 110,000 square feet. Interior work will speed forward approximately in July.
The Mote Science Education Aquarium will be 110,000 square feet. Interior work will speed forward approximately in July.
Photo by Jay Heater
  • Manatee-Sarasota
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One of the biggest non-residential condo construction projects in years in Sarasota County is primed to set sail by the end of 2024. 

The project is the $132 million Mote Science Education Aquarium, or Mote SEA. It's being built near University Town Center and Nathan Benderson Park in north Sarasota, near the border with Manatee County.  The area has been a hub of commercial activity of late,. Among the new additions: a Tesla dealership is under construction at UTC; a new Trader Joe's grocery store opened a few months ago across the street; and also across University Parkway a coming soon sign is in place for a Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar.  

Officials with the builders of SEA, Willis Smith Construction and Whiting-Turner, say it will be around Thanksgiving when they can turn the facility over to Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium executives.

Then, after the certificate of occupancy is delivered by Sarasota County, it will take another three to four months for Mote to acclimate the wildlife to the 1 million gallons of water in the exhibits before the public can get enter. Opening is expected around February 2025.

By July 2024, the exterior of Mote's Science Education Aquarium will be sealed so weather is no longer a factor and interior construction can speed forward.

On an angle

The mostly finished exterior, which has the look of a sleek ship, will be somewhat of a tease to those driving by the facility. It's already going to look open for business.

"In the first two quarters, we should have the entire facade complete," says Willis Smith Construction's Brian Saunders, the project manager. "When you drive by, it will look like it what it will look like when it opens to the public."

Inside, an army of workers will work on the interior.

'"Dry-in means the building is sealed for rain," says Dave Otterness, the Willis Smith project executive for the facility. "A lot of construction can't go forward without dry-in. Then we will have more than 200 workers a day going six days a week."

In the first six to seven months of 2024, more than 4,000 metal panels have to be put into place to create the building's exterior "skin." It's both a functional and artistic design that everyone associated with the project promises will create one of the region's top landmarks.

It will be a fascinating process that is likely to attract new donors.

"We're getting a lot of donors interested now," says Dan Bebak, a vice president at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium. "It is starting to take shape. We are getting foundations and corporations interested in learning more. They are asking questions such as 'Where are you going to get the sea water? How are you going to move all the animals?'"

Bebak says Mote will make most of the sea water on site or will truck it in from its current site. He says moving the animals is not an issue as "we move a lot of animals around all the time and our staff is very skilled" at that task.

But first the exterior must be finished, one panel at a time, to create the ocular shape of the building. 

The process of putting 6,800 metal panels on the exterior of the Mote Science Education Aquarium is about to begin.
Photo by Jay Heater

"There are not a lot of 90-degree corners, and that creates an optical illusion," says Otterness. "It is difficult because there is nothing straight, but our vision is to build landmarks. and this is the biggest one we've ever done in our 50-year history."

Saunders adds that he likes difficult projects, so he loves being associated with this one.

"It is unique architecture," he says. "There is nothing straight and all the columns are at an angle. All the walls are insulated 4-by-6 foot metal panels that go on in segments. We have three-inch pieces of foam with metal panels laminated to it. Typically, when you see these panels, it is done on flat surfaces."

Other metal panels are attached to the primary panels to create designs.

Support structure 

That is just part of the complexity that faces Willis Smith and Whiting Turner this year.

"We have the Inside Life Support System," Saunders says. "We already have 1 mile of LSS pipe in the ground (with 5 miles at completion). Every exhibit has LSS pipe in it."

He says the exhibits have different needs when it comes to each one's Life Support System.

"A manatee's water quality is different than what an otter needs (for example)," he says.

Otterness says the two construction companies are creating a 24/7 facility. "We are creating a facility that mimics Mother Nature," Otterness says.

The concrete to form all the major exhibits is in place, but the acrylic is not yet in place. Once the acrylic is set, more than 500,000 gallons of water will be used, recycling through the various exhibits, to check the tanks.

"We have to make sure it doesn't leak," Otterness says.

While the interior work will be the major part of the final six months of a project initially announced in February 2018 and broke ground in November 2020, outside the parking lots, sidewalks, walkways and landscaping will be finished.

Furniture will arrive in November, just before Mote begins the process of stocking the aquarium. "The big thing is to acclimate the fish," Otterness says. 

Otterness says a difficult process has been easier now because "we can 3D model everything and cut pieces exactly how they need to be.

"We have been very proactive in our problem solving, getting ahead of it," he says.

The curved acrylic tank window is waiting to be placed in an exhibit at the Mote Science Education Aquarium.
Photo by Jay Heater

Saunders says he is proud to be associated with the project. "It is a landmark for this area, and even nationally," he says. "There are not a tremendous amount of aquariums of this magnitude."

Once open, on a personal level, Bebak is especially looking forward to seeing the permanent colony of penguins that will occupy an exhibit., He also can't wait to see the giant Pacific octopus.

In the meantime, Bebak says the incredibly difficult project has moved along right on schedule.

"We went through a drought, but that meant we didn't have any bad weather or hurricanes," he says. "We didn't lose any time with that. Things are going smoothly."

Bebak says Mote has raised more than $100 million for the project with the hope of another spike in fundraising now that the project is taking shape. Other funding has come from Sarasota County. 

"We have donors foundations and corporations interested in learning more," he says. "It is easier now for us to get in and show prospective investors."

This article originally appeared on sister site


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