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Golden opportunity // Is Main Street road to riches?

It is 5 p.m., and the tractors ripping up the east end of Main Street grow quiet. The day's work on the streetscape project, stripping off 100 years of brick and asphalt roadway to start anew, is done.

Paul Belanger's work is just beginning.

A cigarette hanging from his mouth, black padded headphones on his ears and a $1,000 metal detector in his hand, the 51-year-old is searching for treasure in earth that hasn't seen sunlight for a century. And he's finding it.

Coins, bullet casings, musket balls _ all dating to the turn of the century when the first brick surface was laid on Main Street.

At first, Belanger says, the treasure he looks for comes in many forms such as coins, copper bottle caps, pieces of oil lamps, metal buttons and nails.

Wesley Short searches here with a metal detector every evening, too. The pair know each other by first name.

Short, however, is a bit more candid about what the pair is really searching for. "The experts say there is $10-billion in Spanish gold under the streets of Safety Harbor," he said. "When they tear up the streets like this, it's our opportunity to find it."

Both men are part of a handful of treasure hunters who descend on construction sites across the Tampa Bay area. Some belong to archaeological groups; others do it freelance. All count artifacts and objects as valuable finds, but many dream of the fabled gold.

"I didn't want to tell you that," Belanger said after Short spilled the beans about the possible booty. "Now everyone is going to come down here. Give me a few days before you publish this, okay?"

The secret out, Belanger's eyes lit up as he spoke of what he hoped to find. "The dream is the mother lode, a chest full of gold coins buried by Spanish explorers and found by me."

To hear Belanger tell it, Spanish explorers _ along with an occasional group of pirates and later settlers like Odet Philippe _ often buried gold and silver coins since there were no banks. Death or forgetfulness separated them from the treasure, which now lies everywhere just underneath Safety Harbor.

"There have been mixed stories in the past of pirates coming into Tampa Bay and storing loot in the Safety Harbor area," said Amy David, director of the Safety Harbor Museum of Regional History. "And of Spanish explorers in the 16th century leaving things behind as gifts or by accident."

Pirates, she said, were probably just a nice story. But Spanish explorers leaving gold?

"There is the myth," she said. "Nobody really knows."

This much is fact: Safety Harbor was a center of American Indian activity for centuries. Archaeologists even use the term "Safety Harbor Culture" to refer to Indian populations across west-central Florida during 900-1700. The local inhabitants, the Tocobagans, were centered at what is now Philippe Park.

But historians aren't as convinced as the treasure hunters about the existence of gold.

"There is no Spanish Conquest gold in Tampa Bay," said Dr. Gary Mormino, a University of South Florida history professor and author on local history. "Why would someone bring Spanish gold into Tampa Bay (when) there was no one here to trade with?

"What would have been the point of burying gold in Safety Harbor?"

Mormino said there is no record of anyone ever finding buried treasure anywhere on the west coast of Florida.

But the professor wouldn't mind if that changed.

"I would love to be proven wrong and they find the greatest treasure in all of American history," Mormino said.

Belanger and Short think that might happen as early as next week when Nelson Construction, the contractor for the streetscape project, will drop the elevation of the road as much as a foot in places for the new drainage system.

Remove that foot of dirt and you'll expose the shell fragments that mark the original grade of Main Street before 1900, the level the ground was at for hundreds of years.

The metal detectors these treasure hunters use are a far cry from the kind that make annoying screeching sounds. These high-tech detectors come complete with an onboard computer and screen that not only shows a picture of what it detects but tells exactly how deep the object is buried.

For example, if it were to detect a quarter, it would show a coin with ".25" inside. If two quarters were buried together, it would show ".50" on the screen.

Belanger and Short keep most everything they find. If they turn up any American Indian artifacts, they say, they will turn them over to the local museum.

Sam Allen, the streetscape project manager, said that because the treasure hunters seem to be a professional group that waits until his work is through for the day, he doesn't mind their search.

"We are keeping the sidewalks open anyway, so why not? The people seem to be mature and know where the limits are," he said. "But I don't want it to sound like it's open game on the construction site either. I don't want 40 people running around here with metal detectors."

Belanger said he hopes for the same. One day already, however, there were six people working the site.

The process will be repeated seven times as the streetscape project marches in phases westward down Main Street, first ripping up the roadway, then laying a new one.

Belanger will be there every day the long-hidden earth is exposed.

"The tractors are doing all the work for us," he said. "We will be behind them the whole time. I'll even buy the guys lunch."

Maybe with a gold doubloon.