Apollo Beach, Fla. -- A new tourist attraction is coming to Tampa Bay with one unique quality that will set it apart from the rest: it won't cost a thing to visit.
Tampa Electric Co. (TECO), the Florida Aquarium, and Florida's Fish & Wildlife Commission (FWC) are partnering to expand the manatee viewing area at the Big Bend Power Plant into a full-blown "Environmental Theme Park," featuring nature trails, zip lines, ropes courses, solar-powered trams, and new technology exhibits.
The project will also dedicate 25 acres of TECO's lands at Big Bend for FWC fisheries and Florida Aquarium "animal holding" areas, which both agencies have been trying to secure for years. The land is just south of the current manatee-viewing area.
"We were knocking on any door of people that had land," said Thom Stork, President & CEO of the Florida Aquarium. "We knocked on warehouses in Ybor City...we knocked on the city, developers, the county...and just unfortunately, there wasn't any land that could be given for this process."
All animals that come into the aquarium have to be held in isolation for 30-60 days before being introduced to other animals. But the facility has been struggling with cramming its holding areas onto the roof of its downtown building.
Stork says the Florida Aquarium is currently raising money to develop the 25 donated acres from TECO. And eventually, some of their area will be open to the public.
But for families and tourists alike, the developments from TECO may be the most exciting.
"Our dream is to keep this conservation and technology park...free and open to the public," said Cherie Jacobs, Public Relations Manager for TECO.
TECO will invest millions of dollars in - and around - its manatee-viewing area to create new nature trails, kayak trails, and centers with educational exhibits on technology and energy. While some activities may necessitate a fee, the majority will be free.
The attraction already draws 200,000 visitors each year (it's closed from May-October), but Stork thinks it could reach 1,000,000 after expansion. Theme park developers helped craft the new vision.
"If your kids like coming to the Florida Aquarium," Stork added, "they're going to love coming (to the new facility)...it really tells the story of (the) Bay Area."
The project will likely create jobs, from construction to environmental to educational. Transformation of the conservation areas will likely start this fall, but visitors to the Big Bend facility likely won't see changes for quite some time.
There isn't even an official name for the attraction yet, according to Stork:
"The 'environmental/technology park'; that might sound a little boring, but I guarantee you, it's going to be fun."
The Aquarium will also use the land for animal rehab and research.
FWC officials were excited about the ability to use the land to re-populate certain species as well as expand their research capabilities on the West Coast.
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