MADEIRA BEACH — Fourteen years after rejecting a proposed parking garage on city-owned land in John's Pass, the city is thinking again about getting into the business.
Commissioner Nancy Oakley wants the commission to consider using some of its property, as well as land owned by the Veterans of Foreign Wars post as the location of a city-owned parking garage.
"The pass is packed now. What happens when the aquarium opens in December?" she asked fellow commissioners during a workshop discussion last week.
She said the VFW is interested in "giving up" its land if the organization is guaranteed the new building will include space for the post on the top floor.
Mayor Travis Palladeno suggested that instead of taxpayer money being used to build the garage, a private company could build it in exchange for a 99-year lease.
Ironically, that idea is what derailed a similar proposal in 1998 when a previous city commission rejected building a parking garage in John's Pass.
A German company had offered to build a $2.5 million automated garage on city-provided land. Once it was operational and costs paid back, the city would have shared in the parking revenues.
The proposed 66-foot-high cylindrical garage was to be fully automated and hold up to 240 cars.
Commissioners at the time envisioned the structure to include a revolving restaurant on the top of the garage, but the proposal collapsed over the issue of a 99-year lease on city land.
Some commissioners at the time also wanted the city to consider building its own garage and retaining all the revenue.
Nothing was done, however, until 2003 when Hubbard Enterprises received permission from the city to build a 350-space parking garage and multistory structure with retail and restaurant space at the base of the John's Pass Bridge.
The garage, now operating, was part of the Hubbard's $19.5 million redevelopment at the base of the John's Pass boardwalk.
The former open parking lot was converted into 12,000 square feet of commercial space wrapped around 327 parking spaces in the parking garage.
The new 12,000-square-foot boardwalk buildings replaced 6,000 square feet of space, Hubbard's leasable space.
Now, the Pier Aquarium is planning to move from its St. Petersburg location into some of that space.
Plans call for the Secrets of the Sea Marine Exploration Center and Aquarium to open its new location at John's Pass Village in December.
The 12,500-square-foot aquarium is to be located on two floors next to Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and Hooters.
Forty exhibits with touch screens, creatures to touch or other interactive experiences are planned. The aquarium would focus on a theme of learning about marine science, how information from the sea is gathered and how it's used.
However, City Manager Shane Crawford, who has been meeting with the parties involved in the new attraction for John's Pass, said it is not a certainty.
Commissioner Robin Vander Velde worried that if the aquarium does not move to John's Pass, the city might be "stuck with a white elephant."
"There are all sorts of intricacies in play," Crawford said. "It's fair to say that the aquarium is not a done deal."
He agreed with commissioners that if the aquarium does open in December, it will create major parking problems in John's Pass.
The commission plans to debate the issue again at its next workshop meeting.