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Sanctuary off to a fresh start

A seabird facility restructures and looks for support.

Published May 27, 2007

The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary closed down in February due to lack of workers compensation insurance.
[Times photo: Jim Damaske]
[Times photo: Jim Damaske]
A baby brown pelican on it's nest with it's parents at the The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary.

INDIAN SHORES - The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary has been trying to get back on track after a temporary shutdown in February.

After closing down for a couple of days because of an unpaid insurance bill, and internal turmoil left them scrambling for new management, the sanctuary, a waterfront refuge for hundreds of injured wild birds, has begun restructuring its operations.

The first step was a new director of marketing and public relations, Michelle Simoneau.

She took the reins of the faltering sanctuary after contacting the Heath family when she first learned about the shutdown. She expected to help out as a volunteer, but was persuaded by the sanctuary's president Ralph Heath and her love for nature to take on the project full time as a paid employee.

After years of media coverage associated with both Ralph Heath and the sanctuary, the staff has been left hesitant to comment on little more than their love for the seabirds. Heath had little to say about the "turmoil" surrounding the unpaid insurance bill and the staff changes that followed.

"Everybody quit, and so we just hired new people," Heath said.

Despite the problems, Simoneau said she feels that she can help the sanctuary reach its full potential.

Touting her work as the executive director of the Tampa Bay Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, she feels she is up to the challenges involved.

"I definitely have a history of taking on some challenging things and personalities," she said, adding that she isn't worried about the negative attention the sanctuary has garnered in the past.

"All I know is what I walked into," Simoneau said. "When I walked in, they needed to be restructured and reorganized, and they're letting me go for it."

Zoraida Semprit, current chair of the Tampa Bay Hispanic Chamber, was unfamiliar with the sanctuary but said that Simoneau had developed strong relationships at the chamber.

"You can't go into an organization that has issues and not have the mentality for it, and she does, she's very positive," Semprit said.

Simoneau said the sanctuary has hired a new bookkeeper and gift shop manager and is working on modernizing the computer systems. Heath has taken a back seat in daily operations to Simoneau and his mother, Helen Heath, and mostly focuses on caring for the birds.

Once she has things straightened out, Simoneau can start looking into grants and outside funding. The sanctuary has been operating solely on private donations, which have been coming short of operating costs. They were more than $400,000 in the red at the end of 2005.

"You've got to fix the issues internally before you can expect a great amount of support from the outside," she said.

Future plans for the sanctuary include an Education Center for exhibits and bimonthly Sunset Celebrations, with music and refreshments.

Simoneau and Heath hope these efforts will help raise awareness about the sanctuary, and donations.

"You'd be surprised how many people live within a mile of this place and don't know we exist," Heath said.

Nick Johnson can be reached at or 893-8361.

[Last modified May 26, 2007, 22:31:46]

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