Atlanta’s Georgia Aquarium, the world’s largest, has bought Marineland’s storied Dolphin Conservation Center from developer Jim Jacoby for $5.7 million, 10 years after Jacoby had acquired the property for $1.9 million. The aquarium bought the park just before the New Year. It made the acquisition public today, describing it in a release as part of a strategy to expand the aquarium’s scientific and educational programs in the Southeast. Over the years, Jacoby invested well over $10 million in remaking the attraction.
The association between the aquarium and Marineland isn’t new. Jacoby sits on the aquarium’s board and brought the aquarium into a joint venture at Marineland when it opened the $1.5 million Dolphin Conservation Field Station (DCFS), across the street from the attraction, in April 2009. The field station studies and rehabilitates marine life. Jacoby aimed to make it a centerpiece of marine rescue efforts last summer, had the Deepwater Horizon oil slick circled around the Florida peninsula. “Now under the same ownership and direction, DCFS and the Dolphin Conservation Center at Marineland are expected to align even more closely in the future,” the aquarium’s release reads.
Like its new parent, the Marineland attraction will become a non-profit corporation. That may ease pressure on the park’s financial challenges and ensure its viability as part of an enterprise dedicated to conservation. The attraction has verged between bankruptcy and subsistence ever since Disney World eclipsed its star power after the 1960s: Jacoby’s take-over a decade ago had more to do with his emotional attachment to dolphins and his radical turn toward conservation than with the sort of venture that had made him one of the wealthier developers in the nation over the previous two decades.
But the non-profit status will hurt Marineland as a town, at least initially, as it loses one of its principal sources of property tax revenue. The attraction’s 2010 tax bill in Marineland was about $17,000, almost a third of the town’s budget. That revenue will vanish, as will the nearly $100,000 in total property tax revenue the park was contributing to the county and the school board. The long0-term prospects are less certain either way: depending on the aquarium’s plans for the attraction, it could either become a magnet for research and tourism (the eternal hope for Marineland), thus helping the town’s prosperity, or it could remain the low-caliber attraction richer in lore than visitors (the center drew fewer than 70,000 people last year), leaving Marineland to fend for itself some more.
Ironically, the town of Marineland and the attraction will now switch roles: the conservation center will likely have a more stable future while the town may face bankruptcy, especially if property valuations fall yet again, as they are projected to. For Jim Netherton, Marineland’s mayor, the goal has always been “to keep the town as part of Florida history and not let it disappear,” but he recognizes that his town isn’t guaranteed survival. “Any major change like that has that potential,” Netherton said. “At this point I don’t know what the future is going to bring, and given the fact that people are generally lousy at predicting the future, I’m certainly not going to say that this is going to happen or that’s going to happen.”
Netherton did say that he expects to preserve the town and its roughly $60,000 budget, though he expects property taxes to go up to do so. There are just two property tax payers in town: Jacoby and Centex Properties, now Pulte Homes. Jacoby remains a property owner even after the sale of the dolphin attraction. He’s always planned to build a walkable town center mixing commercial and residential properties. Pulte Homes still has designs of building a string of residential properties, though for now there’s no activity on either front.
Jacoby did not return a call placed to his office in mid-afternoon Monday.
Netherton summed up Jacoby’s tenure in Marineland this way: “The things that he gets good points for are creating the new dolphin lagoons, keeping a number of the dolphins here instead of having them all sold to SeaWorld in Orlando, demolishing two oceanfront hotels and turning the land into part of the River-To-Sea Preserve, and basically keeping the attraction going when it looked like it was on its last leg.” One of the reasons Jacoby bought the attraction was the “dolphin therapy” that helped his young daughter, afflicted with a seizure disorder.
On the other hand, Netherton said, “Jim had a lot of dreams that he could not bring to fruition. We’re still waiting to see a restaurant come back to the town, I’d have liked to see the oceanarium come back. I would like to see the town center be built. He still owns that property so I have hope it will happen when the economy turns around and people start building again.” Jacoby’s innovative focus has been elsewhere. After his $2 billion redevelopment of Atlantic Station in Atlanta—toxic land turned mini-city—he’s been immersed in the $1.5 billion redevelopment of an old Ford factory near Atlanta into a hybrid development of office, retail and hotel space anchored in the region’s transportation economy (he calls it an “aerotropolis”).
Jacoby, still keeping a commercial foot in Marineland and an overseer’s hand on the aquarium’s board, is not about to vanish. And for now the aquarium sounds no less engaged in Marineland.
“Marineland’s modern-day incarnation, with its focus on conservation of dolphins and marine mammals, is an amazing addition to our family – in fact is a perfect complement to the existing education, conservation and research programs currently offered and conducted by the Georgia Aquarium,” said David Kimmel, President and COO of the Georgia Aquarium. “ Institutions like Georgia Aquarium would not even exist if Marineland and others of its kind had not created an awareness and understanding of aquatic animals generations ago.”