The next St. Petersburg Pier: What will $50 million get us? After repairs, not too much
Wake up and good morning. It's a tough environment in downtown St. Petersburg to see any economic light at the end of the recessionary tunnel. And Thursday night's small gathering at St. Pete's Museum of History to explore the past, present and future options of the St. Petersburg Pier was no exception. Between once thriving BayWalk's slide and the Pier's years of financial erosion, it's as if the economic gods above are taking their best shots at some of the city's faded downtown icons. (Photo: Scott Keeler, St. Petersburg Times.)
It sounds a little like Municipal Mission Impossible. You have $50 million to "fix" or "redesign" the current Pier. That sounds like decent money until you're told that most of that money needs to be used to fix the crumbling pilings that support the surface road getting out to the pier. (Add your input on the pier's future here.)
Heck, ex-City Council member Connie Kone, now president of the museum board, said the history museum itself almost shut its doors in June because of low coffers and debt. The museum's one full-time employee is paid for through the rest of this year by the generosity of local philanthropist Bill Hough, and the museum is one third of the way to reaching a modest fundraising goal of $100,000. So it was somehow symbolic that a financially tenuous museum was the site of a discussion on its nearby neighbor, the very financially tenuous Pier.
USF St. Pete history professor Gary Mormino spoke, offering a nostalgic look at the role of piers -- and there were many of them -- on the coastline development of Tampa Bay and other parts of Florida. He called the next incarnation of the St. Pete pier "one of the greatest challenges for St. Petersburg." Somewhat cryptically, he added "we will get the pier we deserve" -- presumably meaning the "next" look of the Pier will depend on the quality of our imagination and how much money we're willing to commit to make it happen. (Postcard shows, in a classier time, the former Million Dollar Pier in St. Petersburg.)
Susan Robertson, current marketing chief for the Pier, ran through a brief contemporary history of the Pier in better days. Citing the $137,000 budget cut this year to advertising and promoting the Pier, she noted the extra challenge of attracting people to the Pier -- be it the Oct. 24 scene of 400 people doing The Thriller dance routine that sealed Michael Jackson's fame or the upcoming holiday lighted boat parade in conjunction with the Rotary Club. Bottom line: the Pier continues to be subsidized by the city at more than $1 million a year.
Finally, Will Michaels, who heads the design committee for the Pier Advisory Task Force, laid out several options under consideration -- given the $50 million available -- for the next life stage of the Pier:
1) Keep the Pier pretty much as it is now, with the same inverted pyramid building, and spend most of the money on fixing the pilings. There's not enough money to repair the Pier and put in a different building.
2) Cut in half the pier's distance that it extends into the bay, saving enough repair money to allow a new building that could have underwater features and possibly a rotating restaurant atop. Another option: the new building could be built atop a man-made island.
3) Put a new pier building on the land -- not at the end of a pier -- that could withstand storms and erosion. But add a pier that juts out into the bay.
4) Blow up the whole thing and call it a day. That's unlikely to happen but it is an option and it would mean spending some money to haul it all away and fix the remaining park area.
Some folks in the Thursday night audience, mostly older folks with strong memories of the pier in better days, offered their views. Bill Hough, a resident since 1937, grew up fishing on the pier and wants that to remain a big part of it. He likes the idea of building a road around the pier building so people can drive all the way out and circle the pier. He also suggested putting in pricier parking meters for those wishing to park out there, and doubted selling "kitschy" tourist stuff inside the pier building offers much economic upside. (Pier photo: Edmund Fountain of the St. Petersburg Times.)
Others offered contrasting visions, from a "greener" pier subsidized by corporate exhibits to one that would turn the pier into more of a boat basin and marina.
It's unfortunate that St. Petersburg must decide the pier's future in such troubling economic times. Truth is, $50 million is not enough money to do what needs to be done to make a new landmark Pier. We waited too long on infrastructure repairs (where have we heard that before?) so there really is no money left after necessary fixes to do much of anything with the current pier. Truth is, the inverted pyramid building designed by Bill Harvard and built in the early 1970s, was cool at the time but is now dated at best and even the pier managers say its structure inhibits efficient use. (Son Bill Harvard Jr., who addressed the pier advisory task force in August, wants to keep it.) None of this means the inverted building won't stick around another decade or two as the most cost-efficient solution to keeping a pier structure.
Do we still want a pier at all? Are we sure $50 million is the "right" sum to make something better? Have we considered a private sector role in funding a better pier? Are the options presented Thursday night the best and only ones to consider? Get involved, folks.
-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist