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FOR GYMBOREE FANS, PLAYTIME IS OVER

Financial troubles have overtaken area locations of the popular children's centers.

Local Gymboree Play & Music centers closed this week amid the franchise's financial troubles that surprised parents who had paid ahead, sometimes for months of classes.

Tot Bot, Inc., which owns several bay area locations, originally filed to reorganize under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code in March, but a judge ordered this week that it be liquidated under Chapter 7 instead.

The company, owned by Dale and Denise Darr,owes 23 creditors, including the Internal Revenue Service, a total of about $1.9-million, the March bankruptcy filings state.

Seven locations were listed in the bankruptcy: Bradenton, Sarasota, Valrico, North and South Tampa, Lutz and Clearwater. Tot Bot will be given a chance to dispute the judge's decision.

The activity center closings are not affecting Gymboree clothing stores, which are run by Gymboree Corp.

Many parents were surprised by the abrupt closings. At an Oct. 17 class, Dulcie Mishkin of Brandon was given a letter, signed by Tot Bot's owners, stating they were shutting down the Valrico location and relocating just down the street.

"I'm very doubtful," Mishkin said after she heard about the closing of the other stores. "I spoke to my son's teacher today and she said as far as she knows she's out of a job."

Tot Bot had been renting space in Lithia Crossings plaza in Valrico since 2005, but Lithia Crossing filed a lawsuit against Tot Bot, saying it hadn't paid rent since it filed bankruptcy in March. Tot Bot owes them about $60,000 in rent, the lawsuit states. The were ordered to evict in August.

Tot Bot's attorney, Stanley Martin, of Palm Harbor, declined to comment.

Mishkin said she'll miss the classes. Her 2-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter both took play and music classes each week. She's not sure if she'll turn to a similar company. But to try to lure customers like her, other children's activity centers quickly devised deals.

The Little Gym on Dale Mabry Highway is offering half-off memberships and birthday party discounts to Gymboree members. And Rolly Pollies on Hillsborough Avenue is offering free open play time to Gymboree members Nov. 1 from 4 to 5:30 p.m.

Gymboree's corporate spokesman, Jamie Falkowski, said corporate employees just found out about the Tampa Bay closings Thursday. They plan to figure out how to deal with the closings next week, and he couldn't say yet if that would involve refunds.

For now, Gymboree customer service agents are fielding calls from surprised parents. They're suggesting they transfer their memberships to the nearest Gymboree location not owned by Tot Bot: Lakeland.

Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Colleen Jenkins contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

Fast facts

A long drive for a little fun

Gymboree Play & Music centers that have closed or will soon close:

North Tampa: 14317 N Dale Mabry Highway

South Tampa: 3309 S Dale Mabry Highway

Lutz: 1912 Oak Grove Blvd.

Valrico: 3448 Lithia-Pinecrest Road

Bradenton: 6016 14th St. W

Countryside: 26224 U.S. Highway 19 N

The nearest Gymboree Play & Music Center that will remain open: 1515 Town Center Drive, Lakeland, (863) 686-4100

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