County will sue Largo fishing museum for unpaid rent

LARGO — The tenant refuses to pay the rent, saying the landlord hasn't complied with the lease. The landlord wants the tenant to either pay up or get out.

The tenant is the Florida Gulf Coast Center for Fishing and Interactive Museum in Largo. The landlord is Pinellas County.

On Tuesday, the Pinellas County Commission voted 5-2 to sue the fishing museum, a nonprofit that owes the county $34,065 in back rent.

According to officials, the county has sent two notices of default to museum founder Jim Simons and has held several meetings with him. County Administrator Robert LaSala said the county has spent "substantial sums" trying to address Simons' grievances about the property he is leasing.

"And it's been a one-way street," LaSala said.

Simons attended Tuesday's meeting and asked the county to go to mediation before filing a lawsuit. In a March 19 letter to the county, Simons indicated he would pay half the cost of a mediator.

He wrote, "We have difficulty understanding that the county would walk away from a facility valued at over $5 million, but pushing this situation to litigation where the county has unlimited resources against a small nonprofit serving children and families is just wrong."

However, a motion by Commissioner Karen Seel to go to mediation failed on a 3-4 vote.

Now, the county will sue to regain possession of the county-owned property and recover the back rent owed to Pinellas.

At the meeting, Simons showed photographs he said were of cracks in walls and sidewalks at the museum. Simons also argued that while he rented 30,300 square feet of space, several thousand square feet can't be used due to unsafe conditions or lack of air conditioning.

The Center for Fishing opened in April 2012 in Pinellas County's Pinewood Cultural Park located off Walsingham Road. It is housed in a complex of buildings in the southeast portion of the park.

Simons, a Seminole resident who is also president of the World Billfish Series, a 15-year-old company that sanctions 50 billfishing tournaments worldwide, first signed the lease for the property in January 2012. He agreed to pay a monthly rent of about $6,000.

He said he stopped paying rent because of his disagreement with the county over the condition of the property, but also claimed he has made a "good-faith effort" by paying $40,000 since January.

While the county says Simons is in default on the rent, he says the county is in default on the lease.

"The primary area of concern is they leased us more than 30,000 square feet, and they have never been able to provide us with the full property. The property is experiencing significant settlement issues.''

One of the classroom buildings that Simons planned to use for a seafood/culinary program is not usable," he said. "The building's foundation is cracking, and the building is weak.''

"And we also had a beam, a contact beam, fall down in the main building. Luckily, nobody was under it because it fell at night,'' he said.

This is not the first time Pinellas County has had challenges with the property. In 2009, the Gulf Coast Museum of Art was forced to close there due in large part to poor attendance. Once the county was forced to mothball the five buildings, it began losing the annual $75,000 in rent money until the Fishing Center moved in.

Although he would not disclose financial figures, Simons, who describes the mission of his group as to "teach children about life through fishing,'' claimed that the organization is financially sound.

He said that more than 4,000 students in Pinellas County are enrolled in the center's fishing clubs.

Piper Castillo can be reached at (727) 445-4163 or pcastillo@tampabay.com.

County will sue Largo fishing museum for unpaid rent 04/09/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 9, 2013 6:32pm]

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