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With big arts plan stalled, attention turns to Beach Drive for Chihuly gallery

ST. PETERSBURG — Superstar glass artist Dale Chihuly attended a ceremonial ground-breaking a year ago at the downtown Morean Arts Center for a $12 million expansion that would include the first museum-quality galleries devoted exclusively to his work.

But since land was cleared at Eighth Street and Central Avenue, the site has sat undisturbed with no signs of construction.

Like so many other recent construction projects stalled by the recession, the expansion was halted.

Now attention has shifted to a possible new location for the Chihuly facility: empty retail space at 400 Beach, a downtown high-rise condominium and retail complex across from Straub Park.

Officials with the arts center and owners of the retail space declined to comment on the location, saying that they won't confirm anything until they finalize a contract with the Chihuly organization in Seattle.

"We're in final negotiations to bring Dale Chihuly's works to St. Petersburg," said Paul Carder, director of marketing, communications and advancement at the Morean Arts Center. "Until all the details are ironed out, we're not in a position to comment."

Mayor Rick Baker said any comments need to come from the Arts Center, "but I remain very confident in the success of bringing the Chihuly museum downtown."

The owners of the space did not return phone calls about the project.

While the location has not been publicly confirmed, information about the site is coming from a growing number of people, and there are indications that a deal is near.

City officials, including Baker, and arts center representatives reportedly met with the board of 400 Beach's condominium association earlier this week to discuss modifications to the building that would accommodate the Chihuly galleries and would require the association's approval.

Davis Anthony, an upscale home and garden decor shop that only recently relocated to a space in the front of the 400 Beach building, has moved to smaller space on the Fourth Avenue side.

"It took us a little by surprise when they asked us to move because they needed our larger space," said co-owner Philip Anthony Weber. "But we had heard the rumors about Chihuly and we thought it would be good for our business."

"It does seem like the worst-kept secret in St. Petersburg," said co-owner Davis Freeman.

Russ Bond, general manager of the Renaissance Vinoy Resort and Golf Club, oversaw the commission of a recently completed Chihuly chandelier for the grand ballroom renovation and had frequent conversations with Chihuly executives.

"I asked them about the Chihuly museum and they said, 'It's looking really good.' "

"The talk is that there may be a Chihuly presence at 400 Beach," said John Schloder, direct of the Museum of Fine Arts at 255 Beach Drive NE. "I'm hearing more people talking about it. It was a topic at lunch today. It would be great."

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

With big arts plan stalled, attention turns to Beach Drive for Chihuly gallery 10/30/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 31, 2009 12:22am]
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