Hundreds of children every year get their first exposure to fishing at the Florida Gulf Coast Center for Fishing and Interactive Museum in Largo.
At the museum’s idyllic setting alongside a river, students learn the subtleties of rods, reels and casting and then try and snag a bass, blue-gill or crappie fish in adjacent Walsingham Reservoir.
But museum owners say ground subsidence has led to the appearance of numerous deep cracks in the ground and walls of the 30,000-square-foot facility, comprised of five buildings it rents from the county. A concrete beam fell in the museum’s main gallery, and county officials have declared another building unusable.
Frustrated by the county’s refusal to fix the problems, museum owners in October stopped paying the $5,500 monthly rent.
Now, the standoff is boiling up into a bitter legal dispute. Commissioners this week gave county legal staff authority to begin legal action to regain possession of the property and seek roughly $34,000 owed in back rent.
Museum president Jim Simons said the museum is planning to countersue the county for not complying with the terms of the lease.
“They knew they could push us to the point of not paying rent and then they could paint us as the bad guy,” Simons said. “These issues are a horrible distraction and are gut-wrenching.”
County leaders say they have spent substantial amount to address the museum’s grievances about the property. They reduced the rent the museum pays to offset the loss of the unusable building.
“It’s been a one-way street,” said County Administrator Robert LaSala. “There is a lack of good faith effort.”
Simons, a former CPA, is also president of World Billfish Series, which runs fishing tournaments around the world.
He opened the little-known museum in 2012 to teach children about fishing “as a hook” to encourage students to stay in school. It includes a gallery that displays pictures of fish and other marine life produced by local artists. There is also a map of Pinellas County donated by the Library of Congress and antique fishing reels and rods.
The museum has encouraged more than 60 Pinellas schools to start fishing clubs with about 4,000 members, Simons said.
The museum, which is free to visit, attracts 3,000 visitors a year, Simons said. With just one full-time employee, it relies on volunteers. The annual budget of $120,000 per year comes from private donations, fundraisers and some corporate sponsorship.
Cracks in the pathway and in the gallery are easy to spot and are growing wider, Simons said. The uncertainty over the building’s future makes it impossible to plan future projects.
“I can’t imagine anyone in my position continuing to pay rent under the current conditions,” Simons said.