CLEARWATER — The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is putting its feet up in the Harborview Center, expanding onto another floor and strengthening its grasp on the aging downtown behemoth once doomed for demolition.
Tonight, the City Council likely will approve a lease allowing the aquarium to move into more than 5,000 square feet of the former trade center's first floor.
The space will be used for storage, mostly orders of knickknacks tied to Dolphin Tale, the Hollywood movie about the aquarium's tailless dolphin, Winter. The aquarium, which has its main facility on Island Estates, already uses the second floor of the Harborview for a popular exhibit of movie props called "Winter's Dolphin Tale Adventure."
The aquarium would pay about $21,000 annually — $4 a square foot — to lease the extra space, which is about one-tenth of the Harborview's cavernous ground floor.
Less than a year ago, the aquarium sent the city a last-minute request to use the Harborview Center for the movie prop exhibit, despite its impending destruction. Though critics said the demolition delay would damage the city's push for downtown redevelopment, the City Council granted the lease.
Leasing even more space in the Harborview could further cement the aquarium's advantage over other high-profile suitors looking to occupy the waterfront bluff, some of the most scenic land downtown. Aquarium leaders angling for a large expansion outside Island Estates have suggested they could submit a proposal by the end of the year.
Ruth Eckerd Hall CEO Zev Buffman, leading a renovation of the downtown Capitol Theatre, has suggested razing the Harborview and building an outdoor amphitheater nearly twice the size of Ruth Eckerd's auditorium on the site.
Some residents have petitioned to keep the space now occupied by the Harborview Center as open parkland overlooking Clearwater Harbor.
Perhaps the least popular proposal: keeping the Harborview intact. A study earlier this year found another decade of repairs to the 50-year-old building would cost the city at least $3.8 million, and potentially millions more.
The space the aquarium now is asking to expand into includes the vacated deli, Pickles Plus Too. The city paid a settlement of $668,000 to get the restaurant out of the Harborview so the building could be demolished.
At the rate the aquarium will pay for its lease, it would take three decades before the city paid off that settlement.
The deli, which has another location in Countryside, still makes delivery runs downtown, but restaurant staff said they have no plans to open another deli soon.
The aquarium's new lease would run concurrently with the 30-month lease for the movie prop exhibit, which has about a year and a half left. But city leaders say they're open to extending the aquarium's stay.
"If the aquarium says they'd like to continue to lease the space," Mayor George Cretekos said, "we would owe it to them to continue discussing exactly what they want to do. I don't want to kick the aquarium out."
Drew Harwell can be reached at (727) 445-4170 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.