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'Dolphin Tale' exhibit coming to Clearwater's Harborview Center

CLEARWATER — The Clearwater Marine Aquarium has won approval to open a tour of movie sets and props in the Harborview Center, capping a month's mad dash of negotiations and sparking new hopes for revitalizing downtown.

The City Council on Thursday unanimously approved a lease granting the Harborview's second floor to the aquarium for at least a year at an annual cost of $1. The aquarium will pay the city back for more than $100,000 in repairs.

The site, 2 miles from the aquarium on Island Estates, will be the aquarium's best chance at crowd control after the Sept. 23 premiere of Dolphin Tale, a 3-D film based on the story of Winter, the aquarium's claim to fame.

Inside the Harborview, crews will reconstruct the movie-set home and garage of Ashley Judd's character in the film. Displays will showcase props from Morgan Freeman's office and Harry Connick Jr.'s houseboat in the film. Though the site will include a small touch tank, Winter and the aquarium's three other dolphins will remain at the aquarium.

Crews will begin moving in the equipment this month. The site will open in November. Aquarium chief executive officer David Yates said admission could cost about $7, though most details, including the new site's name and design, remain in the planning stage.

After weeks of discussion, council members were quick to support the lease Thursday. Member Paul Gibson said only, "Let's go."

The proposal had faced a rocky start. City officials dislike the old Harborview, a defunct convention center that never found its niche and takes up space where Coachman Park could be expanded. Empty, the Harborview still costs the city $60,000 a year to maintain. Leaders wanted to demolish it so badly that they paid its last tenant $600,000 to leave.

And the aquarium's first proposal for moving the exhibit into the Harborview won few early fans. The proposal offered no financial help, required hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs and demanded a hasty turnaround. In a tight budget year, City Council members recalled that they had previously granted two subsidies to the not-for-profit aquarium since 2007, totalling about $1 million.

Ultimately, repair estimates dropped, and the aquarium offered to cover all of the city's costs. And council members warmed to the idea of an attraction that could help businesses in the Harborview's shadow.

"It alleviates some of the pressure on Island Estates, and hopefully it will bring some people downtown," Mayor Frank Hibbard said. "It's a good situation for both of us."

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

'Dolphin Tale' exhibit coming to Clearwater's Harborview Center 09/02/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 2, 2011 8:36pm]

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