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Widow selling tropical fish farms, more at auction

WIMAUMA — Before David Kitchen died, mere weeks after his lung cancer diagnosis, he told his wife to sell their tropical fish farm business and retire to the beach.

That was in 2007. The years that followed were hard: The economy tanked, the winters chilled and the tropical fish industry struggled. Once one of the state's most prominent fish suppliers, the Kitchens' company, Terraqua Aquatics, became too stressful for Marion Kitchen to run without her husband.

Four years later, she is finally taking her husband's advice, auctioning the couple's real estate and collections this week.

"I'm just tired," Marion Kitchen, 65, said. "I just don't want to do it no more."

On Thursday, she planned to auction 10 properties: fish farms, a snail farm, mobile home parks, two houses, a menagerie, a re-created Old West town called Dodge City. Kitchen will also sell the furnishings and decorations from Dodge City, which was once a destination for special events but now lies empty and aging.

"Kind of a relief," she said about the auction, as if to reassure herself that it really is.

• • •

Over the years, they had done everything together: "Me and him was a team," Marion Kitchen said.

The Kitchens accumulated properties, operating more than 700 fish ponds in Wimauma, Balm and Arcadia. Terraqua Aquatics was for a time the largest supplier of feeder guppies in the state, according to Art Rawlins, president of the Florida Tropical Fish Farm Association.

But fish were just the start.

The pair owned a snail farm, Great Quality Tropical Fish, that the family said became one of the largest local distributors of mystery snails.

They converted land into mobile home parks. Partnering with a friend, they started a wildlife sanctuary to house unwanted animals: a lion, a tiger, two bears. They built the replica of Dodge City, filled with Western memorabilia.

Animals were David Kitchen's passion.

When he died at age 64, Marion Kitchen tried to carry on the life they had created together.

• • •

For the past year, Marion Kitchen has thought about selling her husband's estate. She would grow aggravated with the seven-day-a-week burden of the fish farms and talk about getting rid of them.

Then she'd change her mind.

Back and forth she went, until three months ago she began considering it more seriously. It's about time, family members told her.

"If I didn't get so old, I'd still be in it," Marion Kitchen said. "I gotta live a little, you know?"

So far, potential buyers seem to be fish farmers who could take over the operations and keep some of the employees, she said.

Some of the properties will go to the highest bidders. Others, including the Dodge City reproduction and bigger fish farms, will need Marion Kitchen's approval.

It's unclear, the family said, how much the properties will fetch. Of the 10 parcels, the highest-assessed property, 2502 W Lake Drive in Wimauma, was listed with a market value of $571,186, according to the Hillsborough County property appraiser.

David Boozer, executive director of the Florida Tropical Fish Farm Association, has noticed a few fish farmers placing classified ads for their properties. Some of the ads, he said, have been running for a year, even as owners slash asking prices.

"They're not moving very fast," Boozer said.

Anecdotally, Boozer said operators have placed their fish farms on the market mostly because of personal problems, such as not having anybody to take over family-owned companies.

It doesn't help, he said, that people have less to spend on hobbies like collecting fish. And back-to-back winter freezes have killed some of farmers' stocks.

• • •

Marion Kitchen drove through Dodge City this week on a small orange Kubota utility vehicle. She passed the livery stall, the barbershop, the trading post. The rock wall and the cacti that used to form a flowing waterfall. The empty cages where the exotic animals formerly lived.

She stops the utility vehicle to show off her birds, the only animals left among the wildlife cages. She cares for geese and swans in cages and lets peacocks roam free, filling the quiet with their panting, screeching honk.

Of the whole estate, Marion Kitchen wants to keep the birds. She'll move them somewhere else and build a tall privacy fence around her house, which sits on a neighboring property.

She doesn't know what she's going to do next, but she knows she doesn't want to look outside her windows and see reminders of the past 40 years.

Still, as she drives away from the animal cages, she can't help but wonder if things will stay the same.

"It could be another sanctuary for somebody else," she said.

Lean and wrinkled from the sun, she's tough but gets a distant look when she talks about retiring.

She won't attend to the auction. It'll be too hard to watch.

Stephanie Wang can be reached at swang@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

>> If you go

The auction

The auction of David Kitchen's estate continues today at 2502 W Lake Drive in Wimauma. A preview of personal collections including taxidermy, firearms, carousel horses, trucks and tools will run from 8 a.m. until the auction begins at 10 a.m. For more purchasing information and descriptions of items for sale, go to higgenbotham.com.

Widow selling tropical fish farms, more at auction 06/09/11 [Last modified: Thursday, June 9, 2011 5:30am]

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