CLEARWATER — The Armed Forces Military Museum is considering moving into the Harborview Center, bringing tanks, bombs and bayonets to the closed convention center that's been set for demolition.
The Largo museum would join the Clearwater Marine Aquarium's movie-set tour in resurrecting downtown Clearwater's white elephant, where the city has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to ready the building for wrecking.
The idea is young, thought up in recent weeks during a lunch between Mayor Frank Hibbard and museum founder John J. Piazza Sr. No one knows yet how much it would cost, how long the museum would stay, or how best to mobilize tanks and aircraft for a move to the Clearwater coast.
It's also not clear whether the mayor's fellow City Council members will support the idea, or how much repair work the building would need.
But Hibbard and Piazza said the plan could net the museum more business and draw more people to downtown. Hibbard said his about-face on the Harborview made more sense than tearing it down now for some undetermined future.
"If the Harborview's there," Hibbard said, "you might as well fill it up."
Piazza, a history buff who served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, founded the museum in 1996 after learning his teenage granddaughter didn't know who Adolf Hitler was.
The museum's exhibits toured schools and state fairs before finding a home three years ago in a warehouse off Ulmerton Road. It's a location that Nadine Piazza, the founder's daughter and the museum's director of operations, calls a "challenge." The museum, which she called Florida's largest museum not run on government funds, had about 30,000 visitors last year.
"Any location, versus where we're in now, would be an asset," she said.
The 35,000-square-foot museum chronicles life in the historical battlefield, from the trenches of World War I to the urban combat of the Iraq War. One of its signature pieces is a green service uniform worn by Saddam Hussein, found outside his palace by an Army sergeant in 2003.
Among the museum's 100,000 other items, donated or taken from Piazza's personal collection: weapons, from bows and arrows to sticky bombs and flamethrowers; uniforms, from Korean War fatigues to ghillie camouflage sniper suits; and vehicles, like Patton tanks and a Russian MiG-21 supersonic fighter jet.
The Harborview's open first and third floors, the Piazzas said, would likely fit all of their exhibits, dioramas and current meeting space. The museum has hosted field trips, poker tournaments, memorials, weddings and a bar mitzvah.
The City Council has not publicly discussed the idea. But council members said in phone interviews that the possibilities for the move were dragged down by the problems associated with the Harborview. Member Bill Jonson said the building was out of character for the area and a bruise on downtown.
"It's a big box that's blocking the connection between Coachman Park and downtown, kind of like a Berlin Wall," Jonson said. "I'm looking forward to being able to tear the Harborview Center down."
He and others have been waiting for years as the city tried desperately to flatten it. The council's vote to close the costly center two years ago nudged out its main tenant, a Stein Mart department store. Officials in March rebuffed an Orlando gymnastics school offering the city $105,000 a year to move in. A few months later, they offered Pickles Plus Too, a deli there with a decade left on its lease, a $668,000 settlement to move out.
Moving in the museum could likely involve another long lease, a prospect that has annoyed some. Resident Jack Mortimer wrote to Vice Mayor George Cretekos that "the waterfront shouldn't be locked up … until we know what the public really wants."
Council member John Doran said he would keep an open mind to the idea, but he felt the Harborview's future has long been decided. Residents who think the Harborview is a mistake, he said, might view a new lease as just another flaw.
"If we were going to do something with the Harborview," Doran said, "couldn't we have done something three years ago?"
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or [email protected]