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Clearwater wants more from deal with aquarium to use Harborview Center

CLEARWATER — City leaders are open to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium moving into the Harborview Center — if they get a better deal.

Aquarium leaders wanted to open a second site at the city's defunct trade center. They offered the city $1 a year for the space, saying the real reward for the city would come from more tourist traffic downtown.

But those visitors alone won't cover the cost of repairing the center for a new tenant, estimated at $365,000. The City Council has for years wanted to demolish the aging center on the downtown waterfront, even recently voting to pay $668,000 to its last tenant, Pickles Plus Too deli, to break its lease.

Though Mayor Frank Hibbard called the Harborview "a tender subject," he said the aquarium could be the closest thing to a "silver bullet" for drawing people downtown.

But council members want more in exchange, such as splitting the cost of repairs or sharing profits.

A "quick-response team" of city brass will meet with aquarium leaders to negotiate. Hibbard expects they'll discuss a new proposal at a meeting later this month.

While most on the council were supportive of the idea, they said they weren't happy about the aquarium's last-minute cry for help — its second in less than a year. In October, the city voted to pay $750,000 in taxpayer funds to help the aquarium buy land for expansion.

"Over the last year or so, it seems like you have had one crisis after another," council member John Doran said. "Your problems have become our problems at almost every step of the way."

The aquarium's proposal to use the Harborview Center was delivered to the city last week. The aquarium would open the center's second floor for a gift shop and tour area for props used in filming Dolphin Tale, a movie based on Winter, the aquarium's star dolphin.

Leaders worry the movie's September premiere could overwhelm the Island Estates aquarium, which is undergoing a $12 million expansion. Publicity about the movie, aquarium CEO David Yates said, made last month the facility's busiest ever.

The Harborview Center's second floor would double the aquarium's space, but officials said it needs air-conditioning, roof and electrical work before it could open. Though costly, those repairs would fix only the most basic of needs — the equivalent, Doran said, of "duct-taping the thing together."

Even that seemed like too much to council member Bill Jonson, who also was the lone dissenting vote against the $750,000 the city approved for the aquarium.

"I just don't see how we can justify spending taxpayer money," he said, "for a building we're knocking down."

Aquarium executive vice president Frank Dame said unexpected permitting problems triggered delays in their expansion, and the longest they would need to stay at the Harborview is two years.

Vice Mayor George Cretekos admonished them not to wait to plan the end of their stay.

"We've known for a long time that this movie was going to open in September, and you're coming to us in August," Cretekos said. "Don't let this happen again."

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

Clearwater wants more from deal with aquarium to use Harborview Center 08/05/11 [Last modified: Friday, August 5, 2011 7:30pm]
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