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    County in fight over deadlines in Turtle Club lease

    Attorneys for the firm that wants to operate the now-closed restaurant argue the county had no right to end the lease.

    By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 6, 2002

    When it comes to the Turtle Club -- the decrepit, one-time restaurant on county-owned land near the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport -- only one thing remains constant.

    That would be the big hole in the roof, visible to every driver passing by on the nearby Bayside Bridge.

    In March, Pinellas County terminated a lease on the property held by Specialty Restaurants Inc. after the company missed a February deadline to apply for a renovation permit.

    The restaurant has been closed since 1999, and Specialty has made repeated promises to repair and reopen it. In January, the company signed a new lease with specific deadlines, then missed one the next month.

    But the county still isn't through with Specialty -- a California company with 38 restaurants around the country, including four near the Courtney Campbell Parkway: Crawdaddy's, Whiskey Joe's, the Rusty Pelican and Castaways.

    The company's lawyers argue the county had no right to terminate the lease. County officials say a lawsuit could be the next step.

    So the county is still talking to the company.

    Pinellas needs to get the restaurant reopened so it produces income again, County Administrator Steve Spratt said Wednesday. He doesn't want to get the property tied up in a long court fight.

    But his patience extends only so far.

    "The potential for litigation is there; however, I'm not necessarily going to feel hostage to that threat," Spratt said.

    The county has asked Specialty to submit a new proposal, Spratt said. The county also has met with local business people to ask for ideas about the property and will ask for formal proposals if Specialty doesn't follow through.

    Specialty CEO David Tallichet didn't return a call Wednesday. In January, he described plans for an elaborate $1.5-million renovation to the restaurant, including a wedding gazebo, a fountain inside and a waterfall outside.

    But Tallichet came to Clearwater two weeks ago and told county officials he's thinking the property might be better used as a hotel instead. He also talked about extending the company's lease on the property from 20 to 50 years.

    Spratt said he's not interested in extending the lease. He said he would want any new agreement with Specialty to include deadlines and monetary damages for delays.

    The county is losing money while the building is closed because Specialty pays a percentage of sales in addition to a flat rent of $65,856 a year.

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