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Bloom time is near

Sunken Gardens was a busy place Tuesday.

Somebody tested water fountains. Heavy machinery crept around the parking lot. Crews worked on a sidewalk arbor. Kookaburras squalled somewhere deep in the garden.

And about noon, a crane prepared to perch the new Sunken Gardens sign, a bright, blue ringer for the old one, atop its seven supporting poles.

Its installation suggested an imminent new era for Sunken Gardens, set to begin at month's end.

And it brought back memories for the family of the late Manton Giles.

Giles, who died in 1999, designed a Sunken Gardens sign that was installed in 1960 and stayed until just a few months ago.

Paul Nucci made the new one to look much like Giles's award-winning creation.

"I worked from old postcards," said Nucci, who owns Commercial Graphics and Signs in Lealman.

"We just feel so proud because, you know, Daddy made it, he designed it," said Pam Butcher, Giles's daughter.

Butcher, Giles's widow Norine Giles and several other family members watched the installation after Nucci let them know the time.

Still to come are a tumble of neon petals and blossoms that will glow at night, just like the 320-square-foot sign's 40-inch letters.

The renovated Sunken Gardens is scheduled to have its grand opening on March 30, said project manager Raul Quintana.

"I think the changes are going to be pretty dramatic. The garden entry is going to be beautiful," Quintana said.

Once a privately owned mid-20th Century roadside attraction, Sunken Gardens became city property in 1999 after voters approved its purchase. The $2.9-million cost came from a one-time property tax assessment.

It is one of three new or renovated elements at 1825 Fourth St. N. Carrabba's Italian Grill and the Great Explorations museum are tenants in a newly restored 1920s Mediterranean-style building.

Inside the Carrabba's hiring trailer, Emil Ferrand has had to make some tough decisions. On the walls are snapshots of future employees and possible candidates for jobs at the new restaurant.

The restaurant is scheduled to open March 31. Ferrand, the co-manager, has been hiring.

"The response has been tremendous," Ferrand said. "I've been satisfied with everyone who's come in," he said of the applicants. "I think there's going to be superb work in here."

A few yards away, construction superintendent Mike Abby rushed to meet his deadline of March 21.

Plenty of work remains and Abby had crews working simultaneously Tuesday. One laid red tiles on the floor; another painted the doorways and ceilings.

"We have to finish installing the kitchen equipment, ceiling, tile and furniture," Abby said. He expected to have electricity running through the building by day's end. A carpenter will come through later this week, he said.

There's also landscaping and irrigation to do. But the amount of work is not unusual when it comes to building a restaurant, Abby said.

"It's always tight," Abby said. "The schedules are done where it's hard to do on time."

An arbor along the sidewalk replaces the restaurant's signature rooftop garden, such as the one at the restaurant's Tyrone Boulevard site. The garden wasn't deemed appropriate for the historic building, so as a compromise, Carrabba's built the arbor, a covered walkway along Fourth Street N.

Next door at Great Explorations, crews were installing exhibits.

Murray Beairsto, the museum's interim executive director, said a final inspection of the building is expected Friday. If all works out, that's when the museum will get its certificate of occupancy. The final installation of exhibits is scheduled for March 20, with the opening set for April 1.

All the exhibits are new, except for the museum's laser harp, which was brought from its former location at the Pier, Beairsto said.

There will be more than 20 exhibits, including an area for children.