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Pier Aquarium may move to BayWalk

ST. PETERSBURG

The movie complex at BayWalk plans to reduce its number of screens and devote the space to an aquarium and marine science center.

The plan was hatched last year by Muvico chief executive Mike Whalen in reaction to slumping business at BayWalk.

Whalen pitched the idea last year to St. Petersburg Pier Aquarium officials, who say they've outgrown the cramped quarters they've called home for 20 years.

The plan is to split the movieplex into two facilities — one for a repackaged, upscale movie theater targeting adults, the other for an expanded aquarium with high-tech marine science exhibits.

Tentatively billed the "Marine Discovery Center," the $5.5-million facility would open its doors in about two years, said Pier Aquarium board president Lari Johnson. The Pier Aquarium would remain where it is until then.

But before anything happens, Pier Aquarium officials say they must finish a study to determine if they can raise the money needed for the project.

Education would be the cornerstone of the new facility, Johnson said. Multimedia displays and exhibits would supplement the center's four concepts: behavior, movement, change and connections. Children's learning programs would continue to be a priority.

Plans for the revamped facility would lasso inspiration and partnerships from St. Petersburg's marine research community, a talent pool that includes scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and the new marine technology research firm SRI-St. Petersburg.

"This is a wonderful opportunity to transform ourselves into our niche in the aquarium community," said Howard Rutherford, the Pier Aquarium's executive director.

But the change will likely mean higher admission prices, perhaps $7.50 for general admission compared to the current $5.

Muvico, meanwhile, would shrink from a 20-screen complex to a 12-screen "premier" theater like the one the chain runs within its Centro Ybor multiplex. Moviegoers would enjoy a more refined theater, complete with reserved VIP seating, valet parking and upscale food and beverages, including beer and wine.

Whalen hopes the conversion spurs more changes at BayWalk, including new retail opportunities and anchor tenants.

"They need a fresh look," Whalen said. "It can be fixed. There is opportunity."

Whalen said the city and Sembler have neglected BayWalk security, forcing Muvico to pay for additional security inside the theater. "I really feel like we're busting our butts in that town to get a good theater," he said. "I don't feel like we're getting help from anyone."

The overhaul would change the face of BayWalk at a time when the complex is for sale by its owner, the Sembler Co. in St. Petersburg.

Craig Sher, Sembler's executive chairman, said revamping Muvico and adding the marine center would bring "momentum for the new partners." Sembler does not own the theater building.

Sher acknowledges that part of Muvico's struggles are related to adults feeling uncomfortable around rowdy teenagers but insists it's safer than a lot of other major gathering spots in the city.

Johnson hopes the synergy created between the two new venues would boost local attendance and "bring the audience back to BayWalk."

It's unclear what would happen to the space now occupied on two floors by the Pier Aquarium.

"I'd be very disappointed to see them go," said Don Paul, project manager with Urban Retail Management, the Pier's management company. "If and when they ever relocate, they will be missed greatly."

Times staff writer Mark Albright contributed to this report. Casey Cora can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or at ccora@sptimes.com.

Pier Aquarium may move to BayWalk 07/01/08 [Last modified: Thursday, July 3, 2008 1:46pm]
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