CLEARWATER — The city had planned to demolish the Harborview Center by now, but the mostly vacant building is getting some flashy new tenants — possibly Morgan Freeman, Harry Connick Jr. and Ashley Judd.
A film production company that's making a movie about Winter the dolphin, the most famous resident of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, is leasing downtown's Harborview Center beginning this weekend.
"It will be their primary base of operations. They'll be doing some set building in there, some art and design," said aquarium chief executive David Yates. "Using the Harborview is just a huge asset for the film production."
The movie, called A Dolphin's Tale, is to be filmed in 3-D from late September through mid December, mostly at the aquarium. It will be produced by Alcon Entertainment and distributed by Warner Bros., which collaborated on recent films such as The Blind Side and The Book of Eli.
Winter made headlines in 2006 when she lost her tail in a crab trap. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium took her in, and scientists later attached a prosthetic tail. Winter's story has been detailed in a short documentary and a children's book and has inspired many, including kids with amputated limbs.
Alcon says it's "in negotiations" with actors Freeman, Connick and Judd to star in the film, which is to be released in 2011.
In the Harborview Center, the movie makers will have a big empty building to play with. They're leasing the cavernous space on the bottom floor, which used to host trade shows and events like the Taste of Clearwater.
The filmmakers are paying a grand total of $1 for a five-month lease, but the city is happy to accept that because the Winter movie is expected to be an economic boon for the area.
The Pinellas County Film Commission estimates that a mid-sized production like A Dolphin's Tale pumps up to $125,000 into the local economy each day of production. Officials expect the movie to generate more tourism for Clearwater as well.
"There should be a substantial, long-term tourism impact," said Yates, the aquarium's chief executive. "It's a win-win for the city, for us, for businesses and hotels — especially with a downturn in the tourism market because of the oil spill."
The Clearwater City Council approved the lease last week. Before they voted, council members wanted to make sure the deal won't cost local taxpayers anything.
The movie producers will pay for the Harborview's utilities and operating costs, and Clearwater won't be liable if a major system such as the air conditioning breaks down.
"The production company is taking the facility as is," said assistant city manager Rod Irwin.
Clearwater closed most of the publicly owned Harborview Center this past spring and planned to demolish it soon afterward.
But the city hasn't come to terms with the building's sole remaining tenant, Pickles Deli, which has a lease for another 11 years. Clearwater has been negotiating to settle the restaurant's lease and offer it financial incentives to relocate somewhere else downtown, but the deli is not eager to move.
"What we originally planned to do was tear it down, and we have not torn it down," City Attorney Pam Akin told council members. "We are currently planning on maintaining it at least through this five-month period."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.