Largo fishing camp to leave decaying building

LARGO - The Florida Gulf Coast Center for Fishing and Interactive Museum plans to leave its current location, owned by Pinellas County, on Aug. 10.

"With the buildings deteriorating almost weekly, we can't stay here any longer," said Jim Simons, the center's president.

The Largo museum doesn't have a new home, but its summer fishing camps and clubs will continue without interruption, Simons said.

Center officials say settling ground has caused deep cracks in sidewalks and walls at the facility at 12211 Walsingham Road, which consists of five buildings, and county officials have declared one building unusable.

The center has not paid rent to the county since October 2012, less than one year into its five-year lease.

Simons said the center has remained in the buildings to fulfill its commitment to children in its summer programs, but he regularly sees new settlement cracks in the buildings. In addition to the building cracks and a concrete beam that fell in the museum's main gallery, owners also fault the county for failing to do other maintenance work, such as repairing a faulty air conditioner.

"We don't want it to be a distraction any longer to our mission," Simons said. "We've spent enough time on building issues and other things."

Meanwhile, the museum and county government are battling in court.

After Pinellas commissioners gave their legal staff authority to take court action, the center sued the county in April for not fulfilling the lease terms. The county filed suit in May to regain possession of the property and to seek unpaid rent.

Recently, Pinellas officials told center operators that the county had hired a contractor to do repair work on the building, said Nathan Hightower, the center's attorney.

The center then filed a court motion asking a judge to stop the county from doing repairs.

"That repair just covers that one building, and they're unwilling to address all the other buildings," Simons said. "Just fixing 10 percent of the property doesn't help."

The judge refused to hear the motion immediately, but the county has held off on doing repairs, Hightower said.

"We were concerned about that because we're asserting claims in the lawsuit, and we want to preserve the condition of the building," Hightower said. "If the contractor repaired everything, it would look brand new. While pictures and videos can be effective, it's not the same as seeing it with your eyes."

Nancy Meyer, the county's senior assistant attorney, said Pinellas officials have no comment on the ongoing cases.

Meanwhile, the center has found a county consultant's report, dated Jan. 31, 2012, that details the extent of structural damage to the now-unusable building and offers a plan for repairs.

The center was in the first month of its lease contract then, but Simons thinks the county knew about the potential problems before the center moved in.

County leaders said in April they have spent a substantial amount of money addressing the museum's grievances about the property and reduced the rent to make up for the unusable building.

As the court hearings drag on and the center searches for a new home, Simons said its programs will be unaffected. Camps and clubs will continue as scheduled, and the child water-safety awareness program will start right after they move.

"We feel like we have no choice but to move at this point," Simons said. "We'll find a good home."
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