LARGO — The Florida Gulf Coast Center for Fishing and Interactive Museum, embroiled in a landlord-tenant dispute with Pinellas County, will close its doors Aug. 10 after only 18 months.
Founder Jim Simons announced the closing in a news release Thursday.
The legal volleys between Simons and the county began April 9, when the County Commission voted 5-2 to sue Simons to regain possession of the county-owned property, which includes a gallery, movie theater and classroom buildings, and recover thousands of dollars in back rent.
At the time, Simons said he had refused to pay $6,312.50 in monthly rent because the buildings had unaddressed structural problems and the county had not performed needed maintenance on the property.
The day after the commission's vote, Simons sued Pinellas, claiming the county had violated the terms of their lease agreement.
On May 24, Pinellas County filed court documents seeking to have the museum evicted. The county claimed back rent due had mounted to $39,827 through May 30.
Simons, who is running a summer camp at the museum, says that from day one, classroom buildings "were not safe, and before the signing of the lease Pinellas County knew some buildings had severe settlement problems.''
When asked how he has operated a camp for 100 youngsters if conditions there were unsafe, Simons said campers spent most of their time outdoors at nearby Walsingham Lake.
Pinellas County officials would not comment on the dispute.
"It is in litigation, and because it is in litigation, we will not discuss it,'' said Nancy Meyer, a senior assistant county attorney.
The center's collection includes paintings and sculptures with a nautical focus, as well as donations from the community, including historical photographs, charts and fishing gear. It will all be put in temporary storage until a new location is determined, Simons said, adding that he is in negotiations for another site.
Simons, former president of the World Billfish Series, said he first came up with the idea for the fishing center in 2009 after creating First Fish Forever, a foundation intended to "make sure every child has a chance to learn how to fish.''
He said he aims to continue pursuing that mission. When school starts, the 40 fishing clubs that he has established in Pinellas County schools will continue.
"We'll still run the clubs, and we hope to even establish more,'' said Simons. "The clubs take place at the schools. Whether or not the facility closes won't affect them.''
This is the second nonprofit organization to depart from the property in recent years. In January 2009, the Gulf Coast Museum of Art shut its doors, citing poor attendance. The property remained shuttered until Simons leased it in January 2012.
Piper Castillo can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4163.