MADEIRA BEACH — After the cold winter and oil spill of 2010 bruised tourism at Pinellas County beaches already battered by the recession, the Pier Aquarium's decision to move to John's Pass Village brings a welcomed shot in the arm.
"Hooters opened in February right as season hit and that was a big inhale. When we signed the aquarium we could exhale," said Patricia Hubbard, who manages John's Pass Village for her family's business, Hubbard Properties. "The aquarium will bring us to 100 percent occupancy."
The retail complex started the year only 63 percent occupied. Hooters brought it to 75 percent. Not only will the renamed Marine Discovery Center and Aquarium fill 12,000 square feet of long-vacant real estate, but also it will draw thousands of visitors to support other businesses at John's Pass and beyond.
"The economic impact for tourism is going to be phenomenal," said Robin Grabowski, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce. "We feel it's a natural fit. The need for something like this in the mid to southern beaches is overwhelming."
Larry Butterfield, owner and manager of Kilwin's John's Pass candy and ice cream shop is excited about the hundreds of school groups that will tour the aquarium on field trips.
"When the kids go on a field trip they have some money to buy something. I would give special deals for those kids," he said. "Then the kids are going to bring their parents and their families down later. I think (the aquarium) will probably get families to the pass who have never been here."
Since Hooters opened in February in what was four empty stores, Butterfield has seen a boost to business.
"I was surprised myself at how many families go to Hooters. They come to watch sports. They have a 1,037-pound chicken wing hanging and they get their pictures taken with it," he said. "We've had a lot of changes. A lot of days (last year) you could shoot a cannon through here."
Addicted to the Bean has been a lonely coffee shop at one corner of John's Pass. The aquarium will occupy space on both sides of it and have the coffee shop open into its gift shop. Co-owner Laura Rumple is thrilled to have a projected 175,000 aquarium visitors annually flow past her shop. But already, business is up from 2010.
"Compared to last year it's a lot better. This is a much better season, you can feel it," she said.
Paw Paws, a store with gifts for pets and pet owners, opened six weeks ago.
"The aquarium coming here made me feel like we made a great decision," said Paw Paws owner Mike Jackson. "I think it's going to mix up the clientele."
Though it won't open until December 2012, the aquarium should also help Hubbard Property's reorganization plan gain court approval so it can emerge from bankruptcy in September. The company filed for Chapter 11 in January as it was facing foreclosure because of a $22 million loan. It had invested heavily in an expansion just before business and tourism took some harsh blows.
"September 2008 was the start of the train wreck. Lehman Brothers failed, the stock market fell," Hubbard said. "As we got into 2009, the tenants in the lesser locations started to pull out. It wasn't a mass exodus, it was very steady through 2009. Then we got the horrible winter and some were still hanging on, then the oil spill happened."
Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or firstname.lastname@example.org.