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Beaches, baseball and art

Art got another boost in Pinellas County recently when the Florida Gulf Coast Art Center announced it would build a new museum and studio complex in mid-county.

A partnership between the private, non-profit art center and county government will create a $6-million art display and teaching facility and a $16-million botanical gardens. The site is next to Heritage Village and the county Cooperative Extension Service just south of Ulmerton Road, and will include those facilities in a multiuse park.

Four years ago, Florida Gulf Coast Art Center was looking to expand beyond its limited facility in Belleair. Hoping to serve a broader audience, it hired Ken Rollins as director in 1994, built an endowment that has grown to $5.6-million and looked for a new site. Rollins talked to County Administrator Fred Marquis about the art center's plan, and the partnership was born.

The first art building should be open in early 1999, and the finished complex will include 45,000 square feet of classrooms, studios, galleries, an auditorium and an artists' house. The center will focus on education, offering art programs to Pinellas school children and St. Petersburg Junior College students as well as the public. The county botanical gardens will be connected to the art center by walking paths.

The plan was the latest good news about the arts in the county. Last year, SPJC was given hundreds of pieces of art, including the works of Abraham Rattner, and a $2.5-million endowment by Tarpon Springs residents Allen and Isabelle Leepa. The college will build a museum to display the work, a plan that had to be enlarged this year when the Tampa Museum of Art contributed 2,000 more works originally donated by the Leepas.

Add to that our existing facilities _ the Salvador Dali Museum, the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts, the Dunedin Fine Arts Center _ and art is a cultural addition to the allure of our beaches and (next year) baseball.

County officials and the Florida Gulf Coast Art Center should be commended for their contribution to the county's quality of life.