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Fishing museum's backers prepare for April opening in Largo


At the same time the boy was learning to walk and talk, his father taught him to bait a hook. He learned to recognize the change of seasons by checking out which fish his father brought home after a day of fishing near John's Pass.

"In the fall and spring, kingfish are here. Close to summer, it's tarpon, and close to winter, it's grouper,'' said Chris Turner, a boat captain and yacht broker based in St. Petersburg.

His late father, Gene Turner, was a renowned local fisherman and boat builder. Because of the devotion to the sea Chris Turner learned from his father, he plans to donate a fishing boat, built by his dad in 1967, to the Florida Gulf Coast Center for Fishing and Interactive Museum.

The museum is scheduled to open April 1 in Largo's Pinewood Cultural Park, the former location of the Gulf Coast Museum of Art. On Tuesday the property's landlord, the Pinellas County Commission, is scheduled to review the final lease. If commissioners approve, the museum's founder will start preparing for opening day at the site, adjacent to the Florida Botanical Gardens and Heritage Village near Largo.

That founder, Jim Simons of Seminole, will build a wooden deck around the property's center pond. He'll add a kitchen to the classroom area as well as an interactive simulator that will teach students fishing techniques. He'll prepare the small movie theater for weekend shows — which will all be fish-themed, of course.

Since revealing his plans for the museum about six months ago, Simons has had more than a few inquiries. "My phone rings every day with people wanting to get involved,'' he said.

He had a call from a woman in Dade City who recently mourned the death of her brother, a lifelong fisherman. The woman, an elementary school teacher, received money collected by her students and she wants Simons to use it to start a memory garden at the museum to honor deceased fishermen.

He has spoken to several hundred Pinellas County students who have expressed interest in joining fishing clubs that would be coordinated through the museum. "I've also had calls from several parents asking how they can get involved,'' he said.

But perhaps the most exciting phone call came from Chris Turner, who described the boat he wanted to donate as "a kingfisher."

"It has a built-in well inside the hull to hold live bait and there's nothing, outside of the steering wheel and compass and gauges, that is store-bought," Chris Turner said. "Dad built everything on it.''

The boat will serve as a centerpiece for the museum's legacy section.

"When fishermen hear the name Gene Turner, they think of a great boat builder and the most well-known kingfisherman in the area,'' Simons said. "We'll put it on display with original tackle and use it to explain how boat building was done over 50 years ago.''

Naysayers could easily point out that in 2009, the Gulf Coast Museum of Art was forced to close due in large part to a lack of attendance.

"But they were dependent on tourism and we are not,'' Simons said. "We are a grass roots project with the fishing community's support.''

The terms of Simons' lease include a five-year commitment, with rent set at $6,312.50 per month.

While some may consider having monthly rent of more than $6,000 daunting, Simons sees it as a good deal.

"Keep in mind that the figure is for about 30,000 square feet. So you're talking $2.50 a square foot for rental, which isn't bad at all,'' said Simons, who has invested $500,000 of his own money earned through his company, the World Billfishing Series. The WBS, started 15 years ago, sanctions about 15 fishing tournaments worldwide each year.

Along with gathering donations from anglers across the state, Simons plans to earn additional income by subleasing space for his "artist colony portion of the museum,'' he said.

So far, Simons said, he has five artists, all with marine-themed work, who have committed to renting space at $10 per lineal foot. He hopes to add 20 more artists to the list within the next several months.

"For example, one of the artists I already have, painter Carey Chen, will rent between 10 and 20 lineal feet. He'll display six to 10 paintings and will pay a rent of somewhere between $100 and $200 every month,'' he said. "We'll also collect commission on the sales these artists make in the museum.''

Other money-generating ideas include opening a nautical retail store, offering adult seafood cooking classes taught by local chefs with a $25 session fee, and renting out the museum's event hall for formal events including weddings.

Chris Turner, who has been made a trustee of the museum, hopes satellite locations will open in the next few years around the state.

"I see this as a way to preserve history and promote fishing to the new generation,'' he said. "It's important that people understand how we have a great, unique fishery right offshore, and how every area of the state has its own, different waters.''

Piper Castillo can be reached at or (727) 445-4163.

Fishing museum's backers prepare for April opening in Largo 01/05/12 [Last modified: Friday, January 6, 2012 3:19pm]
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