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Date of Issue: March 17, 2005

Ex-Sigma fish house, soon to be ex-Cortez Cove Marina.
Bell options old Sigma property

Saying he's too busy to fight through the kind of opposition he has encountered in Cortez, Piero Rivolta has given Karen Bell a 60-day option to buy the former Sigma property.

Bell's proposal has aroused a storm of controversy in Cortez, with some Cortezians approving, some indifferent, some vociferously opposed because they have a deal of their own in mind.

Neither Bell nor Rivolta discussed price on the option, although last year Rivolta said he had put $1.5 million into the property, including the $750,000 he paid for it.

Bell said she and another person, whom she did not identify, have some money and are looking for another investor to help out.

"We could keep going for awhile," she said. "But the mortgage payments would be too high for us to carry on indefinitely."

Rivolta bought the three-acre property in 1999 from the Taiwanese businessman who ran the fish house until he ran into trouble with the U.S. government. Rivolta renamed it Cortez Cover Marina, dredged the boat basin, refurbished the boat slips and the main building, which he used as a woodworking shop to finish out 38-foot boats he was building at Port Manatee. He wanted to develop a marina and build some housing, and that's when he ran into a wave of outrage among his Cortez neighbors.

Bell said she wanted to make the property a moorage for all kinds of watercraft and specifically commercial fishing boats. That would be in keeping with her Bell family heritage - the A.P. Bell Fish Co. nearby has been a family enterprise for decades. She owns Star Fish Company and Seafood Market and Restaurant next door to Bell Fish.

She would allow fishermen to work on their boats there, installing a marine railway to haul the boats.

Indeed, she started thinking of buying the property last fall when a Bell boat broke down and had to be hauled in a commercial boatyard in Tarpon Springs at a "shocking" cost of $8,500.

Cortez native Mary Fulford Green led the charge against Bell's proposal, saying there never has been a permit for a marina at Rivola's property. Besides, she and others want it for the Watercraft Center being developed as part of the Florida Gulf Coast Marine Museum at the old schoolhouse building just up the road.

Among those others is Roger Allen, coordinator of the museum development and originator of a boatbuilding program in the historic fishing village.

He too would make a fishermen's haven of the property, with a foundry and marine railway and machine shop, plus facilities to teach traditional boatbuilding skills that are rapidly vanishing. Half of the docks would be reserved for fishing boats.

He said he has talked with possible donors and believes they could swing a deal financially. His center would be self-supporting, any income above expenses going into the nonprofit center.

Bell said, though, "A working waterfront is the best thing for Cortez."

Who knew what when is a scalding question.

Green and Allen say Bell had long known of their hopes for the property and they feel bitterly disappointed. Bell said that was not so, that she has been talking with Rivolta for many weeks ironing out details.

The Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage wanted the property earlier, Green said.

Bell said that as treasurer of FISH she'd certainly have known about that, and she'd never heard of that proposal.

"Why not have both there?" asked Thomas "Blue" Fulford, president of FISH, lifelong fisherman and a Cortez leader. He indicated that was far from the last time he would ask that question.

Manatee County Commissioner Jane von Hahmann, who lives in Cortez and owns commercial property there, including Surfing World, said she'd like to see something useful made of the long-idle property, as long as it fit into the community character and the Village Vision Plan. She noted, "This pits one part of Cortez against the other," not an unusual condition there.

Artist Linda Molto, Cortez activist, said she'd "like to see something to help commercial fishing," but wasn't sure what Bell's plans were. Under its zoning, she said, "three houses could be built on that property, there's nothing to stop it."

Blue Fulford said maybe Bell could work in concert with FISH. Cortez loves to argue, he noted, so the matter won't be settled instantly. Anyway, "more power to her."

Said Butch Howey, whose Cortez Trailer Park has been in the family since 1959, "I have no problem with that (Bell's plans). Some people in Cortez don't want any changes, but things do change."

James "Wyre" Lee, a younger-generation Cortezian and fisherman, said of Bell's proposal "Why not?"

Others in Cortez, however, were noncommittal, not interested or not wanting to get involved because, as Molto put it, "it's liable to be nasty."