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Clearwater Marine Aquarium offers to pay to fix up Harborview Center for 'Dolphin Tale' attraction

Hoping to lure Dolphin Tale fans, aquarium leaders want to open a film set and prop tour in Clearwater’s Harborview Center. 

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Hoping to lure Dolphin Tale fans, aquarium leaders want to open a film set and prop tour in Clearwater’s Harborview Center. 

CLEARWATER — The Clearwater Marine Aquarium would pay $172,000 to fix up the Harborview Center and move a temporary attraction into the building under a popular new deal pitched Monday to the City Council.

Aquarium leaders would reimburse the city for repairs, paving over city concerns of funding the aquarium's expansion to the site. Aquarium chief executive officer David Yates said the new site could see its first guests in November and would stay open for between a year and 30 months.

Expecting waves of new visitors lured by next month's premiere of the movie Dolphin Tale, aquarium leaders have proposed opening a film set and prop tour in downtown's defunct convention center.

But their offer of $1 in yearly rent would have left the city paying $365,000 to bring the center up to code. Earlier this month, the council balked at the investment, calling it too risky.

But last week, city officials said pricey repairs to the center's atrium and third floor wouldn't be needed for the center's second floor, cutting the cost in half.

The aquarium said it would pay back the cost of repairs over 30 months, at a minimum of $5,750 a month. One dollar per guest, paying a likely ticket price of $7, would go toward the city, meaning the loan could be repaid early.

"This is effectively a no-cost deal for the city," Yates said. "The city spends zero net and earns a great downtown tourism draw. These things just don't happen."

The council is expected to approve the plan Thursday night, with most members calling it a win-win proposal. Council member John Doran said the new deal "turned a lemon into lemonade."

Yet one aspect of the center's rehabilitation remains a sore subject: its last tenant, Pickles Plus Too. After the deli sued the city, claiming officials tried to bully it from its longtime home, the city paid $668,000 to settle and force the deli to move by next March.

Mayor Frank Hibbard said Tuesday that the city could turn that space over to a new restaurant next year and potentially earn back some of its paid settlement.

"It's silly to keep the Harborview open and not let a restaurant occupy that space," Hibbard said. "Whether that's Pickles remains to be seen. … That's the benefit of having the other contract resolved."

Deli spokeswoman Lisa Brock could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Aquarium executive vice president Frank Dame wrote in his proposal that the site would attract at least 181,000 guests to downtown, "creating a new vibrancy" in a district the city has long struggled to revive.

The site would showcase props from the 3-D film, in which Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd and Harry Connick Jr. retell the story of the aquarium's star dolphin, Winter.

Though the site would feature details about the construction of Winter's prosthetic tail and hold a thousand-pound touch tank, the aquarium's dolphins and sea turtles would stay on Island Estates.

Moving visitors between the sites could involve Jolley Trolley shuttles, though trolley executive director Bob Longenecker said business talks are ongoing.

The site's name and opening date have yet to be released.

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@sptimes.com.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium offers to pay to fix up Harborview Center for 'Dolphin Tale' attraction 08/16/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 16, 2011 8:43pm]
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