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    Jesse's Seafood reduced to rubble

    No one seems to know why the landmark restaurant, closed for two years, was demolished. The mayor guesses the property would be easier to sell without it.

    By MAUREEN BYRNE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 6, 2000


    SEMINOLE -- Motorists driving on Park Boulevard might notice something missing on the south side of the road just east of Home Depot.

    Jesse's Seafood Restaurant, a massive, Victorian-style building named for the city's founding father, is gone. But it is anyone's guess as to why the once popular restaurant, which had been closed for two years, was torn down.

    R. Kelly Johnson with Johnson Ezell Corp., which owns the property, did not return phone calls. Phyllis Often, a service representative at the Property Appraiser's Office, said her records showed no recent transactions involving the 8-acre property.

    And city officials said they did not know why a wrecking crew demolished the restaurant along Long Bayou late last week. All that remained of the 14,400-square-foot structure Tuesday was a pile of rubble and a lone bulldozer.

    No one has submitted redevelopment plans for the site to the city, said Mitch Bobowski, general services director. "I have no idea," he said when asked if the property had been sold.

    Initially called Jesse's Landing, the restaurant at 10400 Park Blvd. had been closed and for sale since July 1998. It opened in 1986 and was named after Seminole pioneer Jesse Johnson and owned by his descendants.

    The restaurant had about 400 seats and served seafood, steaks, salads and desserts at moderate prices in a waterfront setting. Its private rooms sometimes were reserved by wedding parties for rehearsal dinners.

    It was considered an homage to Johnson, dubbed the original "Mr. Seminole" in 1965 by the local chamber of commerce.

    "The only thing I know for certain is that they came to us requesting a permit to demolish the restaurant," said Bill Vola, the city's building official.

    Vola said a contractor for Johnson Ezell pulled the permit on Nov. 16. He said workers were salvaging some of the interior of the building for days before it was torn down last week.

    "It's a landmark, and it's kind of sad that it's gone; but it did have some significant maintenance concerns," Vola said.

    Mayor Dottie Reeder said the owners probably demolished the restaurant because the property would be easier to sell without it. She also figured the vacant structure may have been knocked down because of insurance reasons.

    Reeder was one of the many people who celebrated special occasions, such as Easter or Mother's Day, at the restaurant. She said the building's interior was beautiful with its ornate woodwork, stained glass windows and glass doorknobs.

    "They spared no expense at that building," said Mark Paulson, general manager of Jesse's Dockside Restaurant in Dunedin, which also was owned by Johnson's descendants before it was sold in 1999 to BTW Foods, a Destin-based company that owns and operates restaurants in the Southeast. Paulson worked at the Seminole restaurant before moving to Jesse's Dockside.

    The former Jesse's Flagship in Island Estates on Clearwater Beach, now the the site of Island Way Grill, also was once owned by the Johnson family.

    Operating large restaurants is harder and harder to do these days, said Tom Rice, a partner with BTW Foods. The space isn't utilized enough to cover the expenses, he said.

    Finding a buyer for the restaurant may have proved too difficult and may be the reason why the company razed the building, Rice said. "It's hard to make money with that many square feet," he said.

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