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Landlord talks tough to mermaids

Weeki Wachee Springs managers need to anchor down a deadline for repairs, regional water managers say.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District, the mermaid park's landlord, says it can't float along with no promises in writing.

In addition to a strict deadline for repairs, Swiftmud wants lease payments made in advance, guarantees that it can review the park's financial books each month and independent verification that repairs are being done properly.

If park representatives fail to agree to those lease changes, Swiftmud officials won't rule out the possibility of killing Weeki Wachee's lease when the board meets again Nov. 17.

"We are going to act next month," Swiftmud board chairman Thomas Dabney told board members Tuesday.

Weeki Wachee Springs has suffered declining attendance in recent years and a financial loss of $173,000 last year.

Swiftmud threatened to close the park in the summer, citing concern that buildings were in such disrepair that they put park patrons at risk.

Lethargic stone crabs create a sluggish harvest

Stone crab lovers might have told hold off on melting any butter for a while.

Two weeks into stone crab season, fishermen, seafood wholesalers and restaurateurs are calling this year's start the worst in generations.

The temperate weather has left the crabs lethargic, and it will take a cold snap with strong winds and choppy water to get them moving around, looking for food and stumbling into crab traps.

On the west coast of Florida, where fishermen turn to stone crabs as their crop of choice in the fall and winter months, some seafood connoisseurs anticipated Oct. 15 as if it were Christmas. That was the day fishermen could harvest stone crab claws for the first time since mid-May.

Stone crabs are harvested only for their meaty claws. It is legal to take two claws, but most conservation-minded anglers take only one.

So, unlike some other seafood, a slow season generally doesn't indicate that supply is low. The supply simply isn't finding its way into the traps.

"Traditionally, because of the five months of no harvest, you get a large number of your landings in the first four to six weeks," said Bob Gill, who manages the Cedar Key Fish & Oyster Co. in Homosassa.

"We're not seeing what is typical. The crabs are presumably somewhere, but not where the traps are."

Annexing plan for Wal-Mart gets shelved

CRYSTAL RIVER _ Wal-Mart is going to have to keep shopping for a favorable development deal after the Crystal River City Council voted 3-2 to halt a plan to annex 500 acres south of the city for a Supercenter.

The developer approached the city about getting annexed into Crystal River in August after county staff denied its site plan for a Supercenter because of environmental concerns.

The council's decision most likely will send Realticorp, of South Carolina, to the county's negotiating table.

The county's development services director, Gary Maidhof, said he suspected the developer would reapproach county government. He said he still has concerns about protecting the wetlands on the property and offsetting the impact of traffic.

"The ball is in their court," Maidhof said of Realticorp. "We can get up to speed pretty quickly again."

Innisbrook golf resort facing major money woes

PALM HARBOR _ Even as thousands of golf fans converged at the Westin Innisbrook Golf Resort this weekend to watch some of the world's best players in the Chrysler Championship, a cloud hangs over the resort's future.

Innisbrook, Pinellas County's premier golf resort, is mired in financial misfortune. A key cause is a steep, multiyear drop in the number of guests booking rooms.

That has cut into revenues, causing the resort to fall behind on its debt payments and setting the stage for a possible change of ownership.

The resort's lender, Golf Trust of America, is in the process of taking over in lieu of loan payments. Golf Trust, of Charleston, S.C., could be in possession of Innisbrook by year's end.

Golf Trust would either sell Innisbrook immediately or operate the resort through 2005 before selling.

Golf Trust chief financial officer Keith Wilt, who did not return calls from the Times, was recently quoted in the Tampa Bay Business Journal as saying the transition will be "transparent to the public."

Casino boat plans to dock in Tarpon Springs

TARPON SPRINGS _ Despite the city's troubled history with casino boat companies, a prominent Pensacola lawyer is confident that his new casino boat venture will stay afloat when it starts up before year's end.

If his proposed boat meets city requirements, which Tarpon Springs officials say is likely, Liberis could end up shuttling passengers out to the only offshore gambling boat between Port Richey and John's Pass.

This month, Liberis' company, sureBet Casinos of Florida, applied to the city for an occupational license to run an offshore tour boat in Tarpon Springs. Liberis and his partner, John Vellianitis, a bar owner from Mobile, Ala., say the license will allow them to operate a shuttle boat service to their floating casino.

Last summer, the city torpedoed a proposal to bring a casino boat, hotel and convention center to N Pinellas Avenue.

Next, gambling business in the area tanked when a Stardancer Casino Cruise ship was repossessed, disappearing from its Sponge Docks berth.

In January, FBI agents raided several Stardancer Casino boats, including one in Tarpon Springs, seizing evidence in an embezzlement investigation.

Mayor Frank DiDonato plans to reserve judgment on sureBet's vessel until it is up and running. The boat could bring in more tourist dollars to the city, the mayor said.

In short ...

+ CITRUS HILLS _ Former Major League Baseball player and manager Butch Hobson was named director of baseball operations for the Ted Williams museum. Hobson played for the Boston Red Sox and other teams in the 1970s and '80s and managed the Red Sox in the '90s. Among his tasks will be organizing youth baseball clinics called Ted Williams Hitters Hall of Fame Camps in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

+ The builder of the bay area's huge desalination plant filed for bankruptcy Wednesday, preventing Tampa Bay Water from firing the company and hiring someone else to finish the $110-million job. Construction of the Apollo Beach plant was completed in the spring, but sporadic water production has required further work.

Coming up this week

+ Sen. Bob Graham is set to announce Monday whether he will run for re-election or retire. Although some Graham-watchers say signs point to another Senate run, close advisers say he has not made up his mind and might choose to retire.

+ St. Petersburg voters head to the polls Tuesday to decide the fate of Albert Whitted Municipal Airport. Voters will get three ballot questions asking whether they want to keep the airport, continue to accept grants for it or destroy Albert Whitted and build a new waterfront park on half the property. Voters also will be casting ballots on two contested City Council seats.

_ Compiled by Times staff writer Sharon Kennedy Wynne

SLICE OF JAPANESE LIFE: Japanese eighth-grade teacher Takao Tokutake puts the final touches on a traditional festival costume worn by Dunedin Highland Middle School student Chelsea Arend, 11, during an assembly Thursday in the school's media center. He and another teacher are in the midst of a monthlong visit from Nagano, Japan, to offer a glimpse of their culture.