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Tampa considering behemoth proposal

A geologist wants to build a huge, $75-million dinosaur-themed museum near the Florida Aquarium in Tampa.

By STEVE HUETTEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 9, 2000


TAMPA -- Land around the Florida Aquarium has attracted more than its share of unusual business ideas, from a retractable-roof amphitheater to a pirate-slave ship museum to knock offs of Seattle's Space Needle.

The latest is no less ambitious: a $75-million museum that promoters say will house the largest number of dinosaur exhibits in the world.

Planet Park is the brainchild of Donald L. Wolberg, a New Jersey geologist who put together a traveling dinosaur exhibit that drew big crowds in Philadelphia, Indianapolis and Tucson, Ariz.

City officials flew to Philadelphia for a briefing from Wolberg and his development team in March. Wolberg will make a presentation to local attraction, tourism and Tampa government officials at the aquarium May 18.

To create a tourist destination in the Channel District, the city has been fielding offers on the aquarium's 10-acre parking lot from developers, said Ron Rotella, consultant to Mayor Dick Greco. It's too early to tell whether Wolberg has the best plan, he said.

"The guy's a dynamic individual," said Rotella, who went on the March visit. "At this point, people in the (attraction) business need to meet him personally and see if they share his enthusiasm."

Wolberg predicts big numbers for Planet Park: Attendance of 1.4-million the first year, more than twice the aquarium's annual gate. At least 8 acres of exhibit space under one roof. Naming rights going to some corporation for a cool $1-million.

He wants to create the natural history museum of the 21st century. Huge dinosaur fossils and robotic dinosaurs would be the main draw. But Planet Park will employ light, sound, computers and interactive exhibits to immerse the senses, Wolberg said.

"We don't want people to conjure up (images of) museums in the old-fashioned way -- dark hallways, a guy in a hat counting spines on a clam shell," he said. "We want to make education and science entertaining to people ... using as few words as possible."

Conceptual as they are, Wolberg's plans already are drawing fire locally.

Wolberg lacks any experience running an attraction, said Jeff Swanagan, the aquarium's executive director and CEO. He scoffs at the attendance projection and questions how Planet Park could get the kind of naming-rights money reserved for football stadiums.

The waterfront land where visitors now park is extremely valuable, Swanagan said. The aquarium needs at least part of the parking lot for future exhibits, Swanagan said.

"If we can't add some exhibits, it will be our fate to become a mediocre aquarium," he said. "As much as I love dinosaurs, I want living exhibits that people really want to see."

Then there's the question of who would pay for Planet Park.

Wolberg said he's open to a range of private and public funding ideas. Rotella said Wolberg raised the possibility of issuing bonds guaranteed by public funds.

That's the same financial blueprint the non-profit group that built the aquarium used. When attendance fell far short of projections, the city had to take over the attraction. Tampa taxpayers pay $6.7-million a year in debt service on bonds that will be retired in 2027.

Wolberg calls his projections very conservative.

"I take my gut reaction and divide it in half," he said. "Every student -- or 95 percent -- within an hour's drive will come at least once a year, half of those within an hour and a half. Twenty-eight percent of the population within 50 miles. Ten percent within 100 miles."

Wolberg, 48, had success with Dinofest, a huge dinosaur exhibit that started as an adjunct to a scholarly conference on paleontology in Indianapolis in 1993.

Using contacts with museums throughout the world, he acquired or got agreements to borrow exhibits from as far away as China.

The last Dinofest at the Philadelphia Convention Center included more than 100 full dinosaur skeletons, dinosaur bones from every continent, a 43-foot robotic Tyrannosaurus rex and three T-rex skeletons.

More than a half-million people attended the monthlong event, which was billed as the largest collection of paleontological artifacts ever displayed.

A Dinofest 2000, however, never materialized.

Directors of the St. Louis Science Center balked at their share of mounting costs and pulled the plug in late 1998, said Dwight Crandell, the center's executive vice president.

The center sued Wolberg and his firm, National History Museum Co., to get back $115,000 it advanced him for the exhibit. Wolberg said that was the center's "earnest money" and that he lost far more.

"There's a lot of good in the Dinofest idea," Crandell said. "But it's got to be right for wherever it goes. Not everybody's fit to be married to everybody."

Likewise for the neighborhood around the aquarium.

At least two music amphitheater projects died on waterfront land beside the aquarium. The museum of the Whydah pirate ship expired after protests that the vessel originally was used to ship slaves from Africa.

The Tampa Port Authority finally found a developer to build a multiscreen theater, restaurants and shops on the site. The tower project, called The Pinnacle, still is on the drawing board for a location off the water while developers try to obtain financing.

- Researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Steve Huettel can be reached at (813) 226-3384, or at huettel@sptimes.com.

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