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    The last one standing

    By LORRI HELFAND, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 6, 2003

    CLEARWATER -- The demolition team hacks at the final pieces joining a Tires Plus and what used to be the movie theater at Clearwater Mall.

    Mangled wires and steel beams jut between the fine lines that barely separate them.

    One guy pounds at the building with a sledge hammer. Another breaks in with a saw, slicing away until light shines through the jagged concrete seams.

    By Thursday afternoon, the service center was amputated from the partly pummelled theater and former Michaels craft store.

    One by one, Clearwater Mall stores have fallen.

    Burdines fell first, Montgomery Ward started crashing down a few months ago, and wrecking crews began knocking down Gayfers last week.

    People have been asking Howard Metts if Tires Plus is next.

    "Most people think we're closed," said store manager Metts.

    Despite the look of things, Tires Plus is open.

    It's the only tenant that won't budge an inch.

    After the wrecking crew razes about 920,000 square feet of the 30-year-old mall, the service center still will be standing.

    This type of building amputation is business as unusual for Steve McCauley, vice president of demolition contractor Sonny Glasbrenner, Inc.

    But for the guys at Tires Plus, it borders on bizarre.

    "It makes it a challenge from day to day," said Metts with a shrug.

    They've lost power, water and phone service a few times as contractors reconfigured the electrical and plumbing network.

    Heavy metal music and the usual garage knocks and pings drown out a lot of the demolition crew's banging, but the vibrations have kept service manager Tony Muniz on his toes. Especially when he's had to chase after tires flying off the display room wall.

    Probably the hardest thing to deal with is the dip in business.

    Since all of their fellow retailers have disappeared, Tires Plus can't count on folks dropping off their cars while shopping or catching a movie.

    Even regular customers get confused as demolition and construction crews block off several entrances, including the service center's entrance off U.S. 19.

    Tires Plus, formerly Don Olson Tire, has been at the Clearwater Mall since it opened. And it planned to stay there all along, said Joel Parker, vice president of real estate and development for Morgan Tire and Auto Inc., the 550-store chain that includes Tires Plus.

    Developers talked about moving it to the interior of the new mall, but Tires Plus didn't like that idea. So the developers agreed to leave Tires Plus alone.

    "We helped them understand this credibility that we have gained over the last three decades, we didn't want to lose out on it and they agreed with us," Parker said.

    The developers will foot the bill for the separation and new earth-toned stucco facelift for the center, Parker said.

    The development partners -- Sembler Co. of St. Petersburg and New Plan Excel Realty Trust of New York -- plan to open the new $100-million open-air shopping center early fall.

    Some original tenants such as Michaels and the Wachovia bank plan to move to locations at the new mall. Others like Super Target, Linens 'n Things, PETsMART and Ross Dress for Less also plan to come on board.

    On Thursday, the crew at Tires Plus took a short breather from engine work on an '86 Chevy Camaro and brake work on a '99 Mercury Cougar to check out the demolition crew as it sawed the buildings apart.

    "It's fun to watch, actually," said mechanic Joel Zajac.

    And Metts kept his eye on the end product.

    "It will be great when it's done. We'll probably have one of busiest locations in Pinellas," Metts said.

    -- Lorri Helfand can be reached at (727)445-4155 or lorri@sptimes.com .

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