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Pasco, not Pinellas, has the big theater ticket

On Independence Day, Dorothy Kelly stood ready to buy a ticket for Die Hard with a Vengeance. She briefly considered the plight of poor old St. Petersburg.

Here she was in Pasco County _ an area so often viewed as the boonies of Tampa Bay _ ready to step into the cool air conditioning of a spanking new 18-screen movie theater. Kelly of Port Richey had read in the papers how the city of St. Petersburg had been pining for just such a mega-cinema downtown for years.

The kind of multiplex west Pasco recently welcomed, she noted, was hardly different from what St. Petersburg leaders had for years described as a crucial part of downtown revitalization efforts.

Kelly thought about it, and grinned.

"Tell St. Petersburg to eat their hearts out," the Port Richey resident said. "They already have plenty of things. Are they jealous of Pasco County?"

In a way, yes.

Last week, while the folks in west Pasco were streaming into the Hollywood 18, St. Petersburg City Council members were trying to determine whether to extend its downtown redevelopment contract with Bay Plaza Cos., which was supposed to have started work on a 24-screen theater downtown by June 30. The council wound up granting a 21-month extension, but not before at least one incredulous council member made note of Pasco's newest theater, built by the Cobb Theatres of Birmingham, Ala., with no government incentives or involvement.

"Who would have thought that New Port Richey would have Cobb Theatres with the 12 screens?" St. Petersburg Council Chairwoman Leslie Curran said at the meeting, misstating the theater's size and location. "There never used to be that many people in town. Who would have ever thought that New Port Richey would have all the $100,000 homes in the cow pastures and swamps like they do?"

Cobb opened the Hollywood 18 on June 9, after six months of work to convert a 10-screen theater into a 53,000-square foot 18-screener. Senior vice president Milt Daly would not discuss numbers but said business is booming.

"The market needed a larger complex," said Daly, who was reluctant to discuss the prospects for a multiplex in downtown St. Petersburg. "I don't know much about St. Petersburg, but most downtown areas are kind of hard to develop."

Bay Plaza officials say they have a lease agreement for AMC Theaters to operate a 24-screen theater downtown, and Curran last week said an AMC representative assured her the company remained committed to the project.

The official did not return calls from the Times on Wednesday. But Curran said he told her that a similar theater in a light industrial park in Dallas is drawing about 60,000 people weekly and that he expected similar numbers from downtown St. Petersburg.

In Port Richey, the Hollywood 18 is surrounded by the strip sprawl of U.S. 19, rather than anything remotely like downtown St. Petersburg. Patrons leaving the theater July 4 crowed about its selection, about how parents could drop kids at one movie and watch another themselves.

"Now there's about seven good movies at one time, rather than just one," Bernard Sargrad said.

Patrons liked the idea of having something that St. Petersburg has been trying unsuccessfully to get for years, but most had doubts about the Hollywood 18 having a dramatic impact on their community.

At the neighboring Lone Star Steakhouse, manager Tom Walden expects the theater will boost business but he hasn't seen much impact yet. "A little bit, but not much," Walden said. "I can't say it's been a tremendous boost in the arm."

On his way into the Hollywood 18, Tom Lombardo broke out laughing at the talk of St. Petersburg's quest for a movie theater. "I used to live in St. Petersburg. I moved up here, because they've got better movies," he quipped.