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Big year for ups and downs in Pinellas County

Looking back, 2010 was a year of ups and downs for north Pinellas County. Here's a look at some of the biggest local news stories of the past year.

A star is born

CLEARWATER — Winter the dolphin, arguably Clearwater's most famous resident aside from Hulk Hogan, will swim across movie screens in 2011. A movie called Dolphin Tale was filmed in this area from September through December, mostly at Winter's home, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

Winter made headlines when she lost her tail in a crab trap and scientists fitted her with a prosthetic tail. The movie, a fictionalized version of her life, stars Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd and Harry Connick Jr.

Update: The movie is scheduled for release in October. The aquarium expects attendance to go up once it comes out, creating a ripple effect for local tourism.

A jollier trolley

DUNEDIN — An open-air bus route expanded in November linked Clearwater, Dunedin, Palm Harbor and Tarpon Springs, opening up a new way through north Pinellas that locals hoped would be a boom for business.

The Jolley Trolley, which has run for decades along Clearwater Beach, runs the four-city loop Friday through Sunday, shuttling riders through beaches, downtowns and the Sponge Docks off Tarpon Bayou.

Officials who pledged transit funds to keep the Trolley rolling hoped it would usher in more visitors to spend money at local shops and restaurants.

Update: So far, so good, said Trolley executive director Bob Longenecker. Ridership, about 500 people every weekend, has doubled early estimates, with most riders traveling on Saturdays and centering around downtown Dunedin. The Trolley might soon begin a new line, with direct connections to the Philadelphia Phillies and Toronto Blue Jays' spring training games in Clearwater and Dunedin.

New boat slips

CLEARWATER — It took a decade and a focused campaign, but downtown boat slips finally became a reality in September. Community leaders celebrated the new marina they hope will help jump-start the economy downtown.

In 2007, Clearwater voters narrowly approved the $12.8 million marina project, which includes a nearby promenade, boardwalk and fishing pier. Critics call it a waste of taxpayer money, but city leaders think it's going to be a success over time.

Update: About a third of the 126 slips are currently rented, said Bill Morris, Clearwater's marine and aviation director. He said the project finished the year in the black — partly because it's running with a bare-bones staff of one employee. Also, the city used some other funds to pay down some of the project's debt.

A tragic death

TARPON SPRINGS — The death of a popular former city commissioner spurred a movement to reduce the speed on a section of the Anclote River.

Michael Billiris, 59, was killed Aug. 10 when the boat he was driving collided with another vessel. Soon afterward, about 75 people showed up at a City Commission meeting, asking officials to slow the speed from Marker 32 in Tarpon Springs to Marker 17, a 1-mile stretch that ends just past a boat ramp in Pasco County.

Update: The city is working with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Pasco County officials on an ordinance and application that will soon be submitted to the state, Tarpon Police Chief Bob Kochen said. It will ask that the area be changed to a slow speed-minimum wake zone. Currently there are no speed restrictions there.

Chiefs come and go

CLEARWATER — Talk about ups and downs. Back in January, the city hired Tony Holloway, 47, to be its first black police chief. He succeeded Sid Klein, who retired after nearly three decades on the job.

Then in December, Fire Chief Jamie Geer was arrested on charges that he had sexually abused a young girl for years. He was immediately fired.

Update: Geer remains in the Pinellas County Jail. Investigators are reviewing videotapes found in his car, which might lead to more charges. Meanwhile, Holloway has been settling into his new job. As for Klein, he moved to the Panhandle, where he planned on being a "beach bum."

Fire chief follies

TARPON SPRINGS — Jamie Geer wasn't the only local fire official to land in hot water.

Tarpon Springs Fire Chief Stephen Moreno was forced to resign in February after he and his wife showed up at the scene of a fatal fire reeking of alcohol.

The fire occurred Jan. 14 at the million-dollar home of Dr. Frederick Roever, a renowned Tarpon physician who was killed in the blaze.

Moreno, hired in 2005, was said to have slurred speech and smelled of alcohol more than an hour after he got to the scene. His wife, meandering through the fire scene, also had slurred speech, glassy eyes and was smoking a cigarette.

That same month, an East Lake Fire District commissioner was forced to resign after he posted a sexually explicit profile and nude photograph of himself on an adult website.

W. F. Bill Cannon, 71, was a fire commissioner for 12 years and the board's vice chairman in his final term. A copy of his Internet posting on the site was sent anonymously to other commissioners.

Update: Rick Butcher, a 29-year veteran of the Tarpon Springs Fire Department, was appointed to replace Moreno.

A bankrupt spa

SAFETY HARBOR — One of the state's largest and oldest spas, the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in October. The 22-acre hotel and spa has been a downtown Safety Harbor fixture for more than 60 years and is on the state's register of historic places.

Update: The resort says the Chapter 11 filing allows it to pay down debt and stay open until the market improves. "Believe me, this is a positive for us," said sales director Tina Napolitano.

Oldsmar jobs come, go

OLDSMAR — About 90 local jobs were eliminated when one of the largest aerospace lighting companies in the world closed its Oldsmar location. Goodrich Lighting Systems, which makes landing, taxi and emergency lights and the "No Smoking/Fasten Seat Belt" signs in airplanes, shut down its Fairfield Street facility.

On the other hand, a medical manufacturing company is bringing about 100 high-wage jobs to the area. MicroLumen, whose medical tubing products are used in catheters, stents and other devices, is building a 60,000-square-foot facility at the Brooker Creek Corporate Center.

Update: MicroLumen is expected to employ 60 people locally in 2011 and about 100 by 2014.

A new era for Tarpon

TARPON SPRINGS — When David O. Archie was elected mayor in March, he became the first black mayor of a Pinellas County municipality. He won 57 percent of the votes cast in a city where blacks make up only 6 percent of the population.

Update: "My first reaction is I would have thought it would have happened before 2010," Archie said last week. "But it just shows the citizens of Tarpon are progressive-minded and select people on their qualifications and are not concerned about the color of their skin."

Coral-colored castle

CLEARWATER — After 10 years and three owners, a plan for a new resort in the heart of Clearwater Beach finally came to fruition when the Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach Resort and Spa opened in February.

The opening of the 250-suite luxury resort marked only the second time in a quarter-century that Pinellas County got a new resort hotel on the beach.

From land or from water, the 1-million-square-foot, coral-colored resort at 301 S Gulfview Blvd. can't be missed. The paint job is meant to be iconic, like those of the Don CeSar Beach Resort and the Renaissance Vinoy Resort, which are both a striking pink color.

Update: Hotel reps say the new Hyatt has been a hit with vacationers, with occupancy way ahead of projections. But one part of the resort's business has been lackluster: sales of suites as condo-hotel units. At least seven lawsuits were filed against the resort's owner by people wanting out of their contracts to buy the units.

Camping in condos

DUNEDIN — Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.

The Royal Stewart Arms' home on Honeymoon Island, surrounded by the waterfront of St. Joseph Sound, was nearly its downfall in February when a construction mishap severed the condo complex's water supply.

Residents of the 441-unit complex, with an average age of 80, were without potable water for a week. Toilets, taps and fire hydrants dried up. Residents who stayed bathed in portable showers and gathered water in buckets from tanker trucks.

"I feel like I'm camping," resident Dorothy Miller said.

Update: About a week later, the city floated a temporary relief main along the floor of the Intracoastal Waterway, returning water to the complex. Officials then began working on a permanent fix.

Big year for ups and downs in Pinellas County 01/01/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 1, 2011 1:36pm]
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