If you don't believe in ghosts, mild-mannered Bill Sharpe won't waste time trying to convince you.
Oh, he has photographed plenty of orbs and dark clouds that might represent spirits. On the other hand, maybe they're just water drops or dust specks.
"It really comes down to belief," says the president of Tampa Marketing Co., which owns the Davis Islands Community News and manages www.tampaghostwatchers.com and other Web sites.
Sharpe believes he caught on film an orb moving through an upstairs window inside Fire Station No. 5, an 83-year-old brick and stucco building in Tampa Heights that he and a group of ghost seekers investigated earlier this year.
The 6,500-square-foot former firehouse, at 1910 N. Florida Ave., is about to be transformed into a modern two-story home for new owner Dominique Martinez, a French-born metal sculptor who operates Rustic Steel Creations in the Channelside District.
The downstairs will feature a state-of-the-art kitchen and a pantry inside what used to be the old alarm room. There also will be a wine cellar, a guest bedroom, an original bathroom and a 2,000-square-foot art gallery.
The master bedroom will occupy the second floor, where firemen once slept on cots and whiled away the hours between calls thinking up pranks like gluing spare change onto the sidewalk outside the station's two huge bay doors.
A five-story tower, accessible by ladder, will serve as a small studio.
"On a clear day, I can see St. Petersburg," says Martinez, who bought the Mediterranean Revival-style building from the city last year for $300,000. With 12-foot-high ceilings, 10-inch-thick walls and 6-inch-thick concrete floors, "this building is a fortress."
Workers will install new windows in the gutted structure next month, with a move-in date penciled in for the New Year. But first, Martinez agreed to let Sharpe, a good friend with a penchant for the paranormal, check out the old station.
"There are a lot of bones here," Martinez says.
He heard that at least two vagrants died in the old firehouse. There also was a tale about a fireman whose wife cheated on him with another fireman. According to local lore, the lovers' triangle is now a trio of ghosts still haunted by the betrayal and still hovering around the station.
One of the ghosts won't come into the building, Martinez says with a chuckle. "He stays on the roof."
Sharpe didn't want to hear any of those stories, preferring, instead, to investigate with an open mind. His team of volunteer ghost watchers swept the place twice - once last fall and again in May.
Armed with flashlights, video recorders and cameras, the group captured unidentified sounds, orbs and black shadows. Were they evidence of ghosts?
"There are a lot of theories on what is a ghost," says Sharpe, who first caught the supernatural bug as a teen reading books about paranormal activity by Hans Holzer.
"The answer," Sharpe says, "is all theories probably have some truth to them."
Like Holzer, he believes some ghosts are bursts of positive energy or negative energy; others are spirits locked in a pattern that causes them to react every night at the same time.
"They're trapped in a cycle for some reason," Sharpe explains. "Maybe it's high stress or some uncompleted mission."
Some people find they are sensitive to these communications.
"I don't think I am," Sharpe admits.
But some folks from his group believe they are. A couple said they connected with one of the deceased vagrants. Another saw an apparition that looked like a fireman at the top of the sliding pole.
In addition to the orb, Sharpe felt a presence, he says, and saw black shadows.
"They're not unusual, but not real common, either," he says.
On his Web site, photographs show flashes of light outside the firehouse next to a closed door and at the bottom of a staircase.
Martinez recalls feeling a cold chill in the kitchen.
"Very cold," he says. "It felt like someone turned an air conditioner on."
Was that enough to convince him ghosts exist in his firehouse?
"Oh, yes," Martinez answers quickly. "There's too much history here for there not to be."