Tampa Bay Watch gets spot on St. Pete Pier for marine education center

A rendering of the pier education center at the new St. Pete Pier. Rendering from city of St. Petersburg
A rendering of the pier education center at the new St. Pete Pier. Rendering from city of St. Petersburg
Published May 3 2018
Updated May 3 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — Tampa Bay Watch, the conservation group based in Tierra Verde, will operate an outpost at the new Pier.

In a unanimous vote, City Council members voted Thursday to give the nonprofit organization a five-year lease to offer marine education programs at an area of the Pier that will feature an amphitheater leading down to the water.

Council member Ed Montanari, vice chairman of the pier advisory task force that produced the key 2010 report that has served as a basic guide to redevelopment of the pier, noted that marine education had been one of its recommendations.

It has taken some time, he said, "But here we are."

Chris Ballestra, the city’s managing director of development coordination, said the lease is the first for the over-water section of the 26-acre Pier District.

Tampa Bay Watch will lease 2,989 square feet near the center of the Pier, a site that will include an education station with a classroom, storage area, restrooms and an outdoor patio. There will also be a "wet classroom," with access to public amphitheater seating.

The group will pay nominal rent and be responsible for interior maintenance and utilities. It will also pay $5 a square foot — almost $15,000 annually — for maintenance of the Pier District.

Additionally, the organization will have to raise $825,000 for interior improvements. "It’s a big lift" for the nonprofit," Ballestra said.

Council member Darden Rice asked Peter Clark, founder and president of Tampa Bay Watch, about meeting the group’s fundraising goals. According to the lease agreement, it must raise $250,000 by Aug. 1.

"We want to make sure that they stay on schedule, so that we can begin the improvements at the beginning of 2019," Ballestra said.

Clark appeared optimistic about being able to raise the funds. Plans include soliciting naming rights for the education station and its exhibits. He also said that the organization will offer its facility for corporate and other events, including weddings.

The group, founded in 1993 to protect and restore the Tampa Bay estuary through scientific and educational programs, operates out of a 7,500-square-foot facility that serves more than 3,000 students a year, Clark said. He told the Tampa Bay Times that the Pier will offer another key location for it to teach marine science and environmental stewardship.

"We do a large number of school field trips at Tampa Bay Watch, so much so, that we’re pretty much maxed out at our marine center in Tierra Verde," he said.

"We see this as an opportunity to expand our field trip program to a new venue in downtown St. Petersburg. There is a huge need in our area for STEM-based outreach opportunities."

As part of its lease, the group will give the city nine scholarships for St. Petersburg students. It will also pay for two parking spaces and be allowed one boat slip south of the Pelican parking lot.

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Clark said his organization anticipates enclosing the patio area on the eastern side of the education building for use as flexible classroom space. The current indoor space will serve as an exhibition hall, where a Tampa Bay exhibit tank will display "recreationally and commercially important fish and aquatic wildlife," he said.

"And we will also have some touch tanks for the kids and other hands-on exhibits that talk about problems and solutions in the Tampa Bay Estuary, such as seagrass, and oysters," Clark said, adding that the exhibits are still under development.

The exhibit hall will be open in the afternoons and evenings.

The organization will offer summer camps. Clark, who chairs the city’s Pier Education Advisory Team, said he anticipates taking advantage of other areas in the $76 million Pier District, such as Spa Beach, as teaching tools.

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Tampa Bay Watch submitted an unsolicited proposal last year to operate and manage the Pier education center. The city subsequently advertised for alternative proposals, but received no response.

Ballestra predicted that the organization will be a great tenant.

"They’ve demonstrated superior environmental stewardship of the waterfront since they were formed," he said. "They are excellent at what they do and we’re thrilled to be a partner with them."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.