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Madeira Beach is bustling, even without aquarium

MADEIRA BEACH

The plans for the Pier Aquarium to move to John's Pass have fallen apart, but the city is thriving even without the long-anticipated tourist attraction.

It's hard to score a parking space at John's Pass Village even before tourist season starts. A $2 million beachfront restaurant is in the works, along with a Courtyard by Marriott, Mad Beach Craft Brewing Company, a new Publix, and the conversion of an old motel into 12 $1.1 million luxury condos.

"It's not going to kill the economy, but it would have added to it for sure," said Mayor Travis Palladeno, referring to the recent announcement that the Secrets of the Sea lost its lease at John's Pass Village. The shopping center's owner, insurance giant Aegon USA, grew tired of waiting for the nonprofit aquarium to secure a construction loan for the buildout of the space. Palladeno said there is still a slim chance it might happen, but nobody is counting on it anymore.

Aegon representatives could not be reached for comment.

"It's definitely a blow. It would have been another great piece to the puzzle," said Matthew Powers, who owns the Florida Winery and the Merry Mouse gift shop in the village. He and his father are building a 3,500-square-foot craft beer brewery above the two stores and plan to offer five varieties of their Mad Beach label.

Business is up at the shopping center, partly because of more marketing by the merchants to draw locals, not just tourists, Powers said.

"Where else can you go and have this many mom-and-pop, unique stores in one location?" he said, adding that the merchandise goes far beyond touristy T-shirts.

Peter Drossos, manager of the Cuban Paradise hand-rolled cigar store, echoed his disappointment that the aquarium isn't opening, as he rushed to attend to the line eight people deep in his small shop.

"We had a great August, and it's very vibrant here," he said.

"There is so much going on at John's Pass. We're having the best year we've ever had," said Wendy Hill, a manager of the Bronze Lady jewelry, handbag and accessories shop. The store is renovating to make space for more merchandise.

Patricia Hubbard's family owns the Friendly Fisherman Restaurant and developed the building where Secrets of the Sea was to open. Even though it landed Hooters and the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., the center took a financial beating when bridge construction, the recession and the BP oil spill dampened tourism. The Hubbards declared bankruptcy, and ultimately Aegon took control of the property last year.

"It's heartbreaking," Hubbard said of the aquarium's fizzled plans. "I feel our troubles contributed to their inability to get it done."

Though her brother still owns Hubbard's Marina and a charter fishing business, she has taken a step further back from John's Pass Village by contracting with the owners of the Pasadena Avenue Leverock's Seafood to manage the Friendly Fisherman.

There is activity again around the former Leverock's on the Madeira Beach Causeway. Property owner Jim Holton has new plans to redevelop the site that closed about five years ago.

"He's talking about a resort, condos, a restaurant. He's spending significant money on engineering," Palladeno said.

Steve Westphal, who owns three thriving restaurants in downtown St. Petersburg, is opening the Gulf Grill at 14080 Gulf Blvd. The 6,923-square-foot elevated restaurant will seat 162 people in an open-air building, and another 54 at a first floor tiki bar and on an upper-level deck. The project is under way and expected to cost $2 million.

"Madeira is really doing very well. It's kind of a little hot spot," said Steve Page, developer of the Beach Club of Madeira condominiums at 14010 Gulf Blvd. His company bought the 56-year-old Surf's Inn for $6.9 million in late 2005 with the intention of building on the property, but held off when the recession hit. Demolition is slated to begin Monday. Construction of a three-story, 12-unit complex above parking garages should take about 10 months.

"I think this is the first (residential) project to come out of the ground here in years. We finally felt like the timing was right," he said. It appears so — eight units are already sold at an average price of $1.1 million to mostly Tampa Bay locals.

Page is also developing a 90-room Courtyard by Marriott on 1.5 acres on American Legion Drive. He has built Harborside Docks of Madeira Beach, 26 deepwater boat slips next to the hotel property. It's open to the public and will serve Marriott guests. Construction has started on the hotel, and it should be done in about 10 months.

"That is definitely a big deal for Madeira Beach," Palladeno said. Marriott's corporate website and national marketing will introduce Madeira Beach to an audience that has never heard of the city.

In front of the hotel site, the Publix shopping center will get a major overhaul next year. The 56-year-old shopping center that once was home to Harrell's Garden Center and Rutland's department store will be demolished after the first of the year, according to Publix spokesman Brian West.

Times files were used for this report. Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at kssmith@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8785.

Madeira Beach is bustling, even without aquarium 10/18/13 [Last modified: Friday, October 18, 2013 4:41pm]

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