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Deal for St. Petersburg Museum of History, Pier Aquarium to share space falters

The Pier Aquarium seeks new space as the city embarks on an overhaul of the Pier. A deal with the St. Petersburg Museum of History is now unlikely.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

The Pier Aquarium seeks new space as the city embarks on an overhaul of the Pier. A deal with the St. Petersburg Museum of History is now unlikely.

Since March, the Pier Aquarium has been negotiating with officials at the St. Petersburg Museum of History about leasing space in the museum.

On the surface, it looks like a good marriage. The aquarium is a popular attraction, and the museum — which is on the waterfront nearby — is struggling financially.

But the negotiations have stalled, and the chairman of the aquarium's board of directors fears the proposed union will fizzle.

The aquarium, which has been the Pier's main attraction since it opened in 1988, wants to leave the Pier, at least until the city completes an overhaul of the Pier. The aquarium wants to move by January 2012.

Aquarium officials hope the move will be part of a major makeover of their facility, including a new name — Marine Discovery Center — and an increased emphasis on research and education.

It's no secret that the museum has struggled financially in recent years. The museum, which is owned by the city, sits on a prime piece of real estate at 335 Second Ave. NE in the heart of downtown.

In a recent newsletter highlighting exhibits and events at the museum, board president Connie Kone offered the following:

"Our negotiating team is continuing discussions with the city and the Pier Aquarium regarding their request to move in with us during the renovation of the Pier. Issues to be resolved concern lease modifications, allocation of space and the technical aspects of segregating systems for water based exhibits."

Kone said Friday that the discussions grew out of a December 2009 directive from the city, which urged the museum, the aquarium, the Science Center and the Great Explorations Children's Museum to consider space consolidation.

She said her board had just completed "a visioning session" and would be ready to resume negotiations with the Museum of History shortly.

But Kone also pointed to obstacles.

"When you start putting water next to archived documents, you have a bit of a problem," said Kone.

"Aquarium folks showed up with schematic plans for 9,000 square feet of space, but the museum only has 11,400," she said.

"What it comes down to is they have to be somewhere for five years. We're offering them 2,500 square feet of wet space and possibly sharing other spaces."

Aquarium officials say a deal is unlikely.

"The bottom line is, it's unlikely that it is going to happen. We have a difference of philosophy," said Mark Luther, chairman of the aquarium's board of directors.

"We're still looking for a place to go while the Pier is under renovation," said Luther, an associate professor at the College of Marine Science at USF St. Petersburg.

Lari Johnson, past chair of the aquarium board, has been leading the relocation effort, including negotiations with the Museum of History.

Is there a possibility that the Pier Aquarium may have to close its doors during the renovation of the Pier, which is expected to take five years?

"There's lots of empty spaces downtown, but we want to stay near the waterfront," she said. "We may have to consider other options that are not near the waterfront," she said, adding that there is a possibility that the aquarium might have to leave downtown.

According to Johnson, the Pier Aquarium averages 12,000 visitors a month, while the museum averages between 300 to 400 per month.

"We're looking for 5,000 to 8,000 square feet of space, which is double what we now have (at the Pier) allowing for space for new exhibits," said Johnson.

"There are some buildings downtown that could be a transition for us," she said. "Our goal is to be the centerpiece of the new Pier."

• • •

Construction for a new restaurant is under way on the first floor of the Bank of America building at 200 Central Ave. in St. Petersburg.

The ATRIA will fill the space that once housed a men's clothier and the sales office for Signature Place Condominiums. Its storefronts face Central Avenue and Second Street.

James Guttridge, managing partner of Vintage Ultra Lounge at 16 Second St. N, is one of the partners behind the new restaurant, which also will have a nightclub and lounge bearing the same name on the 19th floor. The 10,000-square-foot venue will include three terraces that offer stunning views of St. Petersburg.

In addition to becoming a new player in downtown St. Petersburg's nightclub scene, ATRIA will also offer rental space for banquets and receptions. The venue is expect to open in late October or early November.

Deal for St. Petersburg Museum of History, Pier Aquarium to share space falters 09/18/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 18, 2010 5:31am]

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