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Clearwater Marine Aquarium in talks with city to use Harborview Center

CLEARWATER — Famous for its miraculous rehabilitations of wildlife, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium is now looking toward its next potential rescue: The Harborview Center.

Aquarium leaders are asking the city if they can open a second site inside the vacant downtown behemoth, long deemed to be dead on the water.

They say that transforming the center's empty second floor into a gift shop and set tour for the aquarium-inspired Hollywood movie Dolphin Tale would help spread out the crowds that are expected to visit the aquarium after the film's September release.

But Clearwater leaders have wanted for years to demolish the center, a defunct building that costs $60,000 a year to maintain. Last month, the city paid $668,000 to settle an awkward lawsuit and force the building's last tenant, Pickles Plus Too Deli, to move by next March.

The aquarium's executive vice president, Frank Dame, said it would pay for maintenance and utilities if the city pays for fixes to the aging center. To stay up to two years, the aquarium is offering a symbolic rent of $1 a year.

City officials can't say yet how much it would cost to get the center in usable shape, and inspectors are still checking the roof and air-conditioning chiller for potentially pricey fixes. But the City Council, which will discuss the proposal Thursday, has the final say on the aquarium's plan.

Council member Bill Jonson said it was "hard to justify" spending anything on a white elephant that's slated for demolition. John Doran said the center's wrecking was a long time coming, but conceded he'd wait until Thursday's public hearing to decide.

"I've always been an advocate of tearing down the Harborview," Mayor Frank Hibbard said. "But I reserve the right to change my mind."

Last month, with 32,000 guests, was the aquarium's busiest month ever. The aquarium contends that the coming months will pack its exhibits to the brim, thanks to the film studio's $50 million advertising budget. A $12 million expansion project to build a new dolphin stadium, aquarium lobby and parking garage is underway, but the construction won't be finished until next year.

"If we got 5,000 people a day in here," Dame said, "what would we do?"

For an answer, they looked across the Intracoastal Waterway. The Harborview Center has plenty of parking, a view of the waterfront and a second floor that, at 50,000 square feet, is larger than the aquarium itself.

It also has a part in the film's history. Last year, crews built sets for a kitchen, bedroom, back yard and garage inside the center to film the 3-D retelling of the story of Winter, the bottlenose dolphin that lost her tail in a crab trap line.

Aquarium leaders say they could rebuild those sets for display, with showcases of props from Morgan Freeman's office, Ashley Judd's house and Harry Connick Jr.'s houseboat. (That boat, built on a barge for the film, is open to visitors in a channel beside the aquarium.)

Aquarium CEO David Yates said the behind-the-scenes site, paired with educational kiosks, a small "touch tank" and a gift shop, could open within two months. The signature species — sea turtles and dolphins Winter, Panama, Nicholas and Hope — would stay at the aquarium on Island Estates.

Dame said the aquarium is in talks with the Jolley Trolley regarding the two-mile shuttle ride across the Memorial Causeway. Leaders have also considered expanding onto the water by offering ecological tours on pontoon boats or lunch buffets aboard a StarLite yacht.

The second site could prove lucrative for the aquarium, with a proposed business model showing profits of between $40,000 and $140,000. Much of that would come from admission of about $7 per visitor.

The aquarium says the city stands to profit, too, from the waves of new visitors spending time downtown.

"It's a way where the city can begin revitalizing itself overnight. When we open this up, it's going to bring thousands of people in every week," Yates said. "Everyone wants to rejuvenate downtown Clearwater. Here it is."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@sptimes.com.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium in talks with city to use Harborview Center 08/02/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 2, 2011 8:01pm]
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