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Wednesday, Jun 20, 2018
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Former Pier aquarium searches for new home - again

MADEIRA BEACH — The assortment of fish, snails, starfish and other creatures that was evicted after the closing of The Pier in St. Petersburg might not have a permanent home for a while.

Officials with the rebranded Secrets of the Sea Marine Exploration Center and Aquarium announced this week their lease has been cancelled on a 13,500-square-foot space at John’s Pass Village in Madeira Beach.

The $4 million attraction was expected to be completed next month and draw a quarter-million visitors a year.

A construction loan that was tied to the aquarium’s lease took longer than expected to finalize and the property’s owner, AEGON USA Realty Associates, backed away as a guarantor of the loan, aquarium officials said.

“We had great faith that everything was going to go forward as we had planned,” said Lari Johnson, chairwoman of the aquarium’s board.

This spring, board members, hoteliers and city leaders celebrated the expected opening of the two-story complex, where 31 exhibits including sharks, jellyfish and coral reefs were planned.

Construction was set to begin in May, about the same time the 25-year-old Pier Aquarium closed with other businesses at The Pier in downtown St. Petersburg.

A construction loan that was scheduled to close in April was delayed through mid-September as the aquarium worked to resolve conditions of the loan with C1 Bank, AEGON and Enterprise Florida.

After AEGON backed out as a guarantor, the aquarium was turned down for a short-term extension of the lease to allow it to find other financial backing, aquarium officials said.

The aquarium had invested $500,000 in the project.

“We didn’t actually get to knock a single wall down,” Johnson said.

The loss of the aquarium will leave a big empty space in John’s Pass Village, which AEGON acquired in a bankruptcy settlement last year.

“It’s sad and it’s unfortunate,” Madeira Beach City Manager Shane Crawford said.

Crawford said he is not aware of any immediate tenants that might replace the aquarium. While he understands AEGON’s business rationale for ending the lease, he said losing the anticipated tourism is a blow to the city.

“They’ll land on their feet somewhere,” Crawford said of the aquarium.

“Unfortunately, it just appears it’s not going be here.”

Aquarium officials are on the lookout for another location, though Johnson didn’t have any specifics as they received word of the lease cancellation just last week.

As for the fish, several hundred of them will remain in an 1,100-gallon tank in the University of South Florida St. Petersburg student center, while a majority will be kept with the aquarium’s tank manufacturer, Suncoast, in Clearwater.

“They’re all happy and they’re on vacation and just waiting for us to find them a new home,” Johnson said.

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