Today, Oct. 24, the Sarasota County Commission unanimously approved a significant step forward in establishing a new Mote Science Education Aquarium (Mote SEA) on approximately 12 acres in the Nathan Benderson Park, within a rapidly growing nexus for Sarasota and Manatee counties and the broader Southwest Florida region.

Commissioners approved a term sheet developed by Mote and Sarasota County staff, which provides a path to formalize a full lease and conveyance agreement no later than the Jan. 30, 2019, Sarasota County Commission meeting. Terms include due-diligence steps that Mote will take, such as providing a legal description of the property, ensuring cooperation with the other organizations using the park, and surveying the land and undertaking environmental testing, before Mote may begin a two-year lease for preconstruction efforts such as land-use approvals and permits. Once all land-use approvals are complete and Mote has raised necessary funding, construction of Mote SEA will commence. The term sheet also outlines steps for eventual conveyance of the property to Mote by a deed.

“We thank the Sarasota County Commission for their formal approval of this significant step forward,” said Mote President & CEO Dr. Michael P. Crosby. “Mote and county staff and legal teams have worked diligently together to achieve a mutually agreeable term sheet and are committed to continue working together to realize a transformative vision for the benefit of southwest Florida’s communities and our oceans.”

Mote leaders announced their vision for Mote SEA in February 2018, and since then, discussions with county staff and other community leaders have been productive and positive. On Oct. 9, the county commission adopted a resolution supporting a partnership with Mote related to Mote SEA and directed the county administrator to return with the term sheet. Mote’s current request for land stands at approximately 12 acres to house Mote SEA and its outdoor features.

Mote SEA will be an iconic facility with 110,000 square feet containing more than 1 million gallons of exhibits featuring marine life and scientific displays from around the world, onsite diving programs, a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) resource center for students, teachers and the general public, conference and special event space, educational galleries with interactive, advanced, digital and augmented reality technology to enhance learning, three K-12 STEM teaching labs and two STEM workforce training labs. Outdoor nature trails with potential additional features such as science-education demonstrations of snook stock enhancement and wetlands restoration will enhance public use of the area.

“Mote SEA will be an awe-inspiring visual focal point for the more than 45 million vehicles traveling on the nearby interstate each year, provide informal science education to a larger and more diverse audience of 700,000 visitors in the first year alone, and achieve our vision of Oceans for All through hands-on teaching labs — with no-cost opportunities for every school in the region,” Crosby said. “The facility will also provide sorely needed conference and major events spaces, and produce a nearly $28-million annual economic impact, beyond nearly $280 million of economic impact during the construction phase.”

A separate meeting of the Sarasota County Commission, at a date to be determined, will address Mote’s request for a $20-million county investment of Tourist Development Tax funds for creation of Mote SEA. The request is part of a diverse fundraising campaign to create Mote SEA: Oceans for All: Improving Access to Marine Science and Technology, which focuses on private, public and corporate giving.

With the nearly 40-year-old existing Mote Aquarium reborn as the Mote SEA at Nathan Benderson Park, Mote Marine Laboratory will also be poised to launch the distinct transformation of its City Island campus into an International Marine Science, Technology & Innovation Park that will ultimately catalyze the development of a “Silicon Valley” for marine science and technology in Southwest Florida that will fuel the growth of a diverse “blue economy.”