LARGO — A Seminole resident wants to open a fishing museum here in the building that formerly housed the Gulf Coast Museum of Art, and county officials have given him a green light.
Jim Simons, president of the World Billfish Series and head of the First Fish Forever Foundation, says his Florida Gulf Coast Center for Fishing and Interactive Museum will focus on "the value of teaching children about life through fishing.''
The Pinellas County Commission reviewed his plan and last week gave Simons, 57, the okay to begin negotiations with the real estate department about leasing the county-owned building in the Pinewood Cultural Park, which also houses Heritage Village and the Florida Botanical Gardens.
If all goes well, Simons hopes to open the museum by early next year.
The Gulf Coast Museum of Art closed in 2009 due in large part to poor attendance. The county was forced to mothball the five buildings on the 33,000-square-foot property. It has been losing the annual $75,000 in rent money ever since.
For Simons, the site is "a perfect place where kids can learn all about fishing, and for adults, we want to provide a place where they can gain skills that could help them in the local workforce.''
He began working on the project about two years ago, and first put the word out to his friends in the fishing world by creating First Fish Forever, a foundation intended to "make sure every child has a chance to learn how to fish,'' he said. The foundation's long-term goal, Simons said, is to open neighborhood fishing centers around the country, with the first in Largo.
Simons' start-up investment is about $500,000 obtained through anglers' donations and the World Billfish Series, a 15-year-old company that sanctions 50 billfishing tournaments worldwide.
He plans to raise more revenue over time through educational programs, a retail center and "donations from the large base of local fishing enthusiasts,'' he said.
Simons envisions the building's main gallery displaying the works of about 20 artists, including sculptors Geoffrey Smith and Kent Ullburg as well as painter Carey Chen. He also wants to set up a fishing simulator where kids can practice their casting technique.
"We also want to display photos of some of Pinellas County's big fishing families,'' Simons said. "There's the Mastry family, the Gene Turner family, for example. We'll also ask the community to bring in their old photos of fishing in the area to share.''
Simons plans to allow catch-and-release fishing in the pond at the center of the property.
And in the two classroom buildings, he wants to conduct rod and reel building classes for children.
"For adults, we plan on holding (seafood) cooking classes, as well as classes in motor repair and canvas making,'' he said. "We want to be a type of marine training facility, if you will.''
Simons acknowledges that some might question beginning such a project during these shaky financial times, "but what we are doing does not require a large capital outlay. And the cause and the need is so great for this,'' he said.
Simons' marketing strategy is twofold. First, he will continue reaching out to fishermen along the Gulf of Mexico. "There are 51,000 individuals in Pinellas County that have fishing licenses, and they will all be receiving letters from me,'' he said.
And it also involves local schools. "The schools will be a key component," he said. "We're making this a field trip destination for Pinellas County students, much like Heritage Village, and we'll be meeting with all public school principals in the county to talk about setting up fishing clubs in each.''
Simons plans to have those students who come in on field trips build a fishing pole.
"And when they leave, since they won't be able to take the poles on the bus, we'll give them a (receipt) for it. They'll give it to their parent, who will come back with them to pick it up, and that will bring additional people in, too.''
The county had been considering two proposals for use of the former art museum property: Simons' plan, and another for the Florida Center for Creative Photography, under the direction of Jeff Donald of Clearwater. About two months ago, the County Commission assigned a committee to critique the two proposals.
Paul Cozzie, the director of Pinellas County parks and conservation resources, was on the committee.
"They were both very good proposals, but this one came out on top,'' he said. "It fits in with the coastal theme of the area. I liked the educational components and I know this is a recreation folks in Pinellas County really enjoy.''
County Commissioner Karen Seel believes Simons' facility would provide a synergy with Heritage Village and the Florida Botanical Gardens. "But in this economic environment, launching a new museum is challenging," she said. "While we move through this process, they need to continue showing us where they stand financially."
Seel also recalled the demise of the former art museum.
"I want to urge them to realize that this needs to be a partnership, and a high level of cooperation is needed among the new museum, the Botanical Gardens and (Heritage Village), especially when it comes to marketing events," Seel said. "In the past, when the art museum was there, they didn't work well together."