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Hands-on hoopla at Sunken Gardens

Great Explorations will settle into the center of Sunken Gardens after a 14-year search for a permanent home.

It is official: Great Explorations, the Hands On Museum will relocate to Sunken Gardens.

City Council members approved a 25-year lease at their meeting Thursday, consigning to the museum about half of the old building that sits on the property at 1824 Fourth St. N. The museum also will share lobby space with the city, which is retaining about a quarter of the building for its use. The remaining space is available, and city officials hope to attract a restaurant to the site.

The 34-page document details dozens of landlord-tenant minutiae, but Bob Patterson, executive director of the museum, said the financial terms have three main components: capital reinvestment, which obligates the museum to help pay for repairs as the building ages; shared common-area maintenance charges; and rent.

Rent is based on "a percentage of our income from defined resources," Patterson said, such as admissions and museum store sales. Not included in the formula is money raised through memberships, grants and donations. The first year, the city will receive 7.5 percent of Great Explorations' income over $500,000. "That number ($500,000) decreases each year," he said, "and in the sixth year, the ceiling is capped at $250,000 for the next 20 years."

The museum will occupy the center part of the building, a soaring, two-story area with a large skylight.

Interior drawings for Great Explorations are still sketchy, but Patterson said the museum's 18,000 square feet would include a museum store and a new, larger version of the popular Touch Tunnel.

"The dream stuff," Patterson's term for the interactive exhibitions and activities, is still tentative. But, he said: "Everything is going to be new. We're not carrying over our old exhibits."

Explore Galore, an area for younger children, will return but in a new format, he said, and Great Explorations recently purchased Kids Bridge from the Smithsonian, an exhibition celebrating ethnic diversity. The museum also will use about 600 square feet of mezzanine space above the main gallery.

Patterson estimates that the renovation will cost $2.5-million. The museum has raised about half that amount.

Groundbreaking is anticipated in September or October and Patterson hopes for a grand opening in summer 2002.

The city will renovate the building's exterior as the museum is working on the interior.

Plans for a $2.7-million restoration project, funded by federal, state and local money, are on track, said Raul Quintana, manager of capital improvements. About half the money will be used to gut the building, reroof it, install basic electrical service and retrofit it with windows and cosmetic enhancements that will approximate its original, 1927 Mediterranean Revival architecture. And the gardens themselves will be improved. Quintana said Sunken Gardens will not be closed at any time during construction.

The addition of Great Explorations brings Sunken Gardens closer to a dramatic rebirth as a major local attraction. The city purchased the aging gardens in 1999 after voters approved a one-time tax that raised about $3.8-million. The property included about 4 acres of grounds and a 55,000-square-foot building that originally was an open-air market, then became a Coca-Cola bottling plant and finally a privately owned gift shop. The Parks Department lost no time sprucing up the gardens and opening them to the public.

The building was more problematic. Windows had been boarded over and the roof leaked, creating a dark, dank, uninhabitable interior. A task force studied uses from groups ranging from Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, whose representatives proposed a $17-million rain forest, to a collector of vintage cars who wanted to have a car museum.

Patterson made a pitch for Great Explorations, which ultimately became the first choice of a consulting firm hired to review the proposals. Lengthy lease negotiations followed, culminating in Thursday's signing.

In moving to Sunken Gardens, Great Explorations ends a 14-year search for a permanent location. The hands-on museum opened in 1987 in a former sporting goods store at 1120 Fourth St. S after a plan collapsed to include it in a cluster that eventually became the St. Petersburg Museum of History on The Pier approach.

The old building it occupied was owned by Echelon, a Florida Progress subsidiary, which routinely forgave lease payments from the struggling little museum.

Echelon was spun off into an independent real estate and development company in 1996, and a year later, executives asked Great Explorations officials to begin a search for a new location.

Great Explorations had hoped to build a new facility on The Pier approach, but the idea quickly invoked the ire of waterfront preservationists. So the museum settled into the third floor of The Pier in 1998.

But the space was too small and parking was an issue. Attendance dropped to 70,000 last year, down from more than 100,000. When the city bought Sunken Gardens a year later, a permanent home for Great Explorations there seemed like an obvious match.

"The whole thing as far as my idea of Sunken Gardens," said City Council member Bill Foster, who has been an advocate for Great Explorations, "was not only historic preservation of the gardens but also its potential to serve kids. Great Explorations was a perfect partner."

Patterson said he anticipates 150,000 visitors when Great Explorations reopens at Sunken Gardens, based on projections from a consultant. "Even on Fourth Street S," he said, "our lowest annual attendance was 104,000." If those figures hold, he said the museum expects to pay about $30,000 in fees and rent the first year.

The city has not actively begun a search for one or more tenants to lease the front part of the building, which comprises almost 10,000 square feet, said Kevin Dunn, director of development coordination with the city.

"A real tenant search will begin six to 12 months out of the opening of the facility," Dunn said. But he sees a "re-emergence of the Fourth Street corridor, with the addition of Outback," referring to the popular steak restaurant said to be moving into the former Bradford Coach House across the street from Sunken Gardens.

"In a recent discussion with the Outback people, they said they would be receptive to discussing another one of their restaurants in the Sunken Gardens building, Dunn said. "Restaurants like to cluster."

Bill Griffith, general manager of The Pier, said he had not begun to search for a new third-floor tenant.

The museum plans to stay open there for a while even after the new place is open, Patterson said. "We've found if you stop and start, you lose momentum."