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Pier, BayWalk and Rays: St. Pete's 3 big icons need serious repairs

A task force will present around April to the St. Petersburg City Council its recommendations on what to do with the Pier. Its chairman says the inverted pyramid structure would likely remain.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

A task force will present around April to the St. Petersburg City Council its recommendations on what to do with the Pier. Its chairman says the inverted pyramid structure would likely remain.

Sometimes it can be treacherous to become a city symbol.

A city grows dependent on you to sparkle in the sunshine and glow at night, to draw business and tourists like bees to honey, and to serve as an uplifting marketing beacon for far-off eyes that want to differentiate your city from thousands of other mid-sized towns in this country.

Some of St. Petersburg's symbols, its key business icons during its now-faded boom cycle, need serious help. I'm talking about three in particular that for many reasons stand out right now:

The Pier. The city with all of its glorious waterfront seems loyal to a fault to refurbish this tired pier with its outdated inverted pyramid building and an expensive list of basic repairs. Yet the city really seems unsure what it wants the Pier to be. Tourism magnet? Retail mecca? Source of profits? Public meeting space? Glorified fishing hut? A task force has examined dozens of potential redesigns but still lacks a mission statement. That's probably not a good starting point.

Baywalk. "BayWalk has the luster of a South Sea pearl," gushed a November 2000 review of the brand new shopping and movie theater complex in downtown St. Petersburg. Now BayWalk's glamor is worn away. Empty storefronts dominate what once symbolized a retail renaissance and, for years, a golden era in the city's downtown core for entertainment, dining and shopping. With most retailers sideswiped by recession, recovery will be slow.

Tropicana Field. The Tampa Bay Rays are chafing so much at the supposed limitations of their outdated home stadium in St. Petersburg, it's a wonder anyone on the Major League Baseball team can run the bases without medical attention. Now we find ourselves in a period of political maneuvers in which the Rays as a sports business are lobbying, at least indirectly, to go elsewhere unless the team gets a new stadium and new location — away from the city's downtown.

It's a challenging trifecta of urban renewal in rough economic times I would not wish on any municipality.

• • •

Last week, former St. Petersburg Mayor Randy Wedding stopped by the newspaper to talk about the Pier's future. He chairs the Pier Advisory Task Force that is vetting the many ways the Pier could be freshened and necessary repairs made with an affordable price tag. He says his group will probably make four recommendations to the City Council for consideration.

He believes it most likely that the dated inverted pyramid will probably stay pretty much as is, with the bulk of available funds spent on repairs to the road and bridge leading to the Pier.

More retail shops will not save the Pier, Wedding says.

Only half-joking, he says the best way to draw enough people out to the Pier is to find out the land it is on is owned by an Indian tribe, thus allowing a casino to be built out on the water.

What Wedding won't say is what exactly should go inside the Pier. With the exception of the fourth floor Columbia Restaurant, there's not much retail success out there.

Personally, Wedding favors more "public" space, presumably for meetings and gatherings, but the jury is out on whether that's a smart business model. The City Council will get a final task force report around April.

I wandered over to BayWalk last weekend, mainly to take a look at a new tenant, the upscale home furnishings store called hermanHOME. It was a blustery day, but it was still troubling to be the only customer in a perfectly pleasant store.

Exiting BayWalk, I was struck by the still-empty storefronts that once housed Ben & Jerry's, the Being home furnishings store and Shapiro's craft gallery.

The busiest store that Saturday? GameStop, which sells video games. To teens.

Thomas McGeachy, managing principal at Ciminelli real estate services, is charged with trying to revive BayWalk with a mix of paying tenants likely to draw more crowds. Sounds like we're going to hear about some more restaurants opening there soon. But wow, what an uphill climb for this one-time icon of downtown retail buzz.

Last, not least, is the Rays franchise. Among St. Petersburg's symbols (despite the team's "Tampa Bay" name), a Major League Baseball team gives the city its biggest, broadest publicity bang. Late last month, a baseball committee composed of area business people recommended the Rays need a new stadium. Two of the three general locations suggested are in Tampa — not St. Petersburg.

• • •

If the Pier gets a cosmetic update and little else, it will remain a faded icon for the city — one that taxpayer funds will continue to subsidize.

If BayWalk gets fully leased again, it will be tough to regain its glory days because the retail center got caught up in divisive politics over public security. But it could still be a modest icon if crowds return.

If the Rays again play solid baseball against division heavyweights Yankees and Red Sox, the team's iconic value to the city will remain intact for now. The message I hear, though, is the Rays eventually will take more serious steps to avoid the long-term lease at the Trop.

Any relocation could mean the loss of a St. Petersburg symbol, but hopefully not the loss of a broader Tampa Bay icon.

Not that St. Petersburg is just a three-icon town. It enjoys other symbols of upscale relaxation, culture and education ranging from the Renaissance Vinoy and Salvador Dali museum (soon to open in brand new digs), to the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and Museum of Fine Arts.

But the bottom line remains. All U.S. cities, including Tampa and Clearwater, are struggling in this economy and need every single dusty icon they can polish to a shine. After years in the fast lane, St. Petersburg's got some fixin' up to do.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Pier, BayWalk and Rays: St. Pete's 3 big icons need serious repairs 02/06/10 [Last modified: Monday, February 8, 2010 11:55am]
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