Mote Marine clears another hurdle in expansion project


The laboratory still has another $96 million to raise before construction can begin

Mote Marine Laboratory has selected a construction management team for what will be the lab’s largest building to date. Willis A. Smith Construction and The Whiting-Turner Contracting Company will work with architect CambridgeSeven to build the Mote Science Education Aquarium (Mote SEA) at Nathan Benderson Park off Interstate 75 in Sarasota County just south of University Parkway. The decision, announced Thursday, involved three “incredibly competitive” finalists. “Building an aquarium is not like building anything else in the world,” said Michael Crosby, president and CEO of Mote Marine. “So we really looked at companies that have a track record of success in that regard.”


Willis A. Smith Construction, a 47-year-old Sarasota-based firm, is the same contractor that built the lab’s International Center for Coral Reef Research and Restoration in Summerland Key. The building can withstand Category 5 hurricane winds and features residences for scientists, students and executives.

By relocating the City Island aquarium to Benderson Park, Mote Marine hopes to alleviate pressures on its research facility, allowing it to grow into Southwest Florida’s “Silicon Valley” of marine science and technology. Crosby says the new building will make Mote’s attractions more accessible to Sarasota and Manatee residents.

The project will cost an estimated $130 million — $34 million of which has been raised through philanthropic donations. Mote hopes to break ground in late 2019 or early 2020 but still has to raise $96 million before it can begin.

“Before you know it, we’ll be having that ribbon-cutting ceremony,” Crosby said.

In January, Sarasota County agreed to allocate 12 acres of Benderson Park for the project. The laboratory is conducting a due diligence study that includes soil testing to ensure that it can sustain the building.

As of March, the Sarasota County Commission was also considering a $20 million contribution to Mote SEA. In addition, Mote requested $15 million from Manatee County and $25 million from the Florida Legislature. Neither requests have been fulfilled yet.

“The economic impact of this facility knows no political boundaries,” Crosby said.

Mote SEA is expected to bring in an estimated $28 million a year from operations.

With an estimated 1 million gallons of living marine exhibits, the five-story, 110,000-s

square-foot structure is projected to double Mote Marine’s visitors during its opening year from 350,000 to 700,000. It will offer three state-of-the-art STEM labs to about 68,000 students from Sarasota, Manatee and surrounding counties free of charge.

Mote SEA is expected to be complete in 2022.

“It’s not going to be recognized just locally, certainly throughout the state of Florida,” said David Sessions, president and CEO of Willis A. Smith Construction. “It’s also going to have world recognition with such a cutting-edge design.”