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Pier Aquarium withholds rent until AC fixed

Andrew Brown, 9, explores the “Counting on Fish” exhibit at the Pier Aquarium in July. The attraction has not paid rent since April and owes the city at least $8,791. The aquarium board will meet Tuesday to decide whether to make payment.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Andrew Brown, 9, explores the “Counting on Fish” exhibit at the Pier Aquarium in July. The attraction has not paid rent since April and owes the city at least $8,791. The aquarium board will meet Tuesday to decide whether to make payment.

ST. PETERSBURG

It's hot outside and your air conditioning isn't working properly. You have plenty of guests coming over, but your landlord keeps giving you the same speech about patience and responsibility.

What to do?

If you're the Pier Aquarium and your landlord is the city, you stop paying rent. Since April, the aquarium has withheld its rent. It owes the city at least $8,791.

Howard Rutherford, the aquarium's director, said the attraction has the money but is withholding it until the city fixes the heating and cooling unit that pumps air throughout the Pier.

The city has already fixed the air-conditioning unit that services the second floor, where the aquarium is, but because hot air rises and cool air drops, Rutherford said he won't turn over the cash until the first floor AC unit at the Pier is also repaired.

Rutherford knows a thing or two about discomfort. He said it took the city 18 months to fix the air conditioner on the second floor the last time it broke and that some of the aquarium's sea life died.

The fracas has spawned half a dozen tense e-mails and memos between the aquarium and city officials, who want their money, pronto.

"This rents need to be paid as soon as possible," Joe Zeoli, the city's downtown facilities manager, wrote in an e-mail to Rutherford on July 17. "I don't want to jeopardize future city funding by having unpaid balances hanging out at year's end."

To complicate the matter, the unit on the first floor might not be fixed until October.

City officials fear a domino effect.

"Allowing the aquarium to continue with nonpayment will certainly provide incentive for other Pier tenants to follow suit," Clay Smith, assistant director of downtown enterprise facilities, wrote in a July 24 memo.

The aquarium's board of directors will meet Tuesday to decide whether to pay the rent.

"We have a purpose. We are not just selling T-shirts here," Rutherford said. "We help make people environmentally literate."

Pier Aquarium withholds rent until AC fixed 08/16/08 [Last modified: Sunday, August 17, 2008 9:21pm]
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