Although it is far from complete, the Florida Gulf Coast Fishing Center and Interactive Museum is about to open its doors.
Museum founder Jim Simons invites the public to what he's calling a "soft'' opening from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday. Starting Tuesday, the doors will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Monday through Saturday.
Because the museum isn't complete, no admission fee will be charged. A grand opening will be held this year.
Set inside Pinellas County's Pinewood Cultural Park next to Heritage Village and the Florida Botanical Gardens, the nonprofit museum is housed in five buildings on a 33,000-square-foot property that once housed the Gulf Coast Museum of Art, which closed because of low attendance.
Simons, president of the World Billfish Series and head of the First Fish Forever Foundation, believes his project is capable of drawing both individuals and families. There has been a need for a central location to celebrate the area's fishing heritage, he said.
Already, he has successfully launched fishing clubs in most Pinellas County high schools. Since January, nearly 1,000 students have signed up to participate, Simons said.
During the soft opening, volunteers will give tours and talk about plans for the museum. Visitors will have a chance to see work from about 12 artists on display in the main gallery (the museum hopes to eventually showcase the work of 20 artists) and visit the gift shop.
In a section devoted to history, visitors will be able to compare charts of Tampa Bay waters dating to the 1930s as well as peek at old photographs and news articles about the area's famous fishing tournaments.
The museum also will run family films with a marine theme throughout the day in the 1,000-square-foot theater. First up: the Free Willy movies as well as Flipper.
Simons acknowledges there is still a lot to do.
In the coming months, he plans to fill the main building with not only artwork, but also a legacy section "dedicated to the fishermen whose names are well-known in Tampa Bay,'' said Simons, 57. These include families with names like Mastry, Hubbard and Turner, he said.
In the classrooms that were once used for pottery and ceramic workshops, Simons wants to install an interactive simulator that will teach students fishing techniques.
He is also busy installing a kitchen to be used as a culinary institute where students will learn how to clean and cook seafood.
Outside, a memorial garden will be dedicated to deceased fishermen from the Tampa Bay area.
Simons has also marked out a spot where he, in partnership with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, will set up a fish hatchery.
And of course, there soon will be plenty of fishing. Summer Fish Camp will begin June 11 and run through Aug. 17. Weekly sessions will teach boys and girls the basics of fishing, including an overview of tackle and boating safety, and take them on excursions to nearby waters including Lake Walsingham.
The most recent donation to the museum's legacy project comes from Pip Whitesell, who lives a stone's throw from the Pinewood Cultural Center. Her late husband, Gus Whitesell, was a Pinellas County boat builder.
She personally delivered photographs, news articles and vintage charts used by the Whitesell family, whose name also graces the nearby Whitesell Softball Complex on 119th Street.
"My husband spent years building boats, wooden boats, as well as fishing in the area,'' said Whitesell, 75. "Gosh, I remember when you could go scalloping on Clearwater Bay. Can you imagine that?''
Whitesell agrees with Simons that a fishing museum could be a lure for many locals.
"Certainly there are many people in this area still interested in fishing and boats,'' she said. "I do hope they make a go of it.''