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Accusations and denials fly in St. Petersburg Pier battle

ST. PETERSBURG — When Los Angeles architect Michael Maltzan was to appear at the Salvador Dalí Museum, some in the city's old guard objected.

Maltzan is the man behind the Lens, St. Petersburg's would-be waterfront icon for the 21st century that has drawn scorn from residents with deep roots and ignited a furious fight to halt its construction.

Leaders of the "Stop the Lens" effort and top financial supporters include financiers, philanthropists, art patrons, real estate investors and former St. Petersburg Yacht Club commodores. Their group, Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, represents a powerhouse of political and social clout.

The rival side of the issue is seemingly less well-connected. Their pro-Lens effort, WOW Our Waterfront St. Pete, was organized by Anthony Sullivan, a TV pitchman born in Britain who has lived in the Tampa Bay area for 20 years. That was kicked off with a rock concert.

Recently Sullivan's group cried foul after Concerned Citizens tried to scuttle Maltzan's Dalí appearance. It was not the first time that the group has thrown its considerable might around, said Sullivan, 44, who lives in the same upscale Snell Isle neighborhood as some of his opponents.

"Some people on the other side have been very aggressive," Sullivan said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

"I have had my livelihood threatened. When I hosted Rock the Lens, they threatened the band Arrested Development. They have tried to assassinate my character on social media. They have called for boycotts of my products. … I know of at least one artist who is afraid to participate in our event in April."

Sullivan said Concerned Citizens also "tried to manipulate," an upcoming March 26 presentation by him and Lisa Wannemacher — Maltzan's St. Petersburg partner on the Lens — at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club.

Leaders of the anti-Lens group dispute Sullivan's claims and say they are simply concentrating on getting enough signatures to force a referendum on the $50 million Lens project that will replace the city's 1973 Pier. The group announced Thursday that it had hired professionals, PCI Consultants of Los Angeles, to help gather petitions.

"Our sole focus is to complete our petition drive so that citizens will have the opportunity to vote on what is on our waterfront and that's all we are attempting to do," said Bud Risser of Risser Oil Corp.

"I think I'm like most lifelong St. Petersburg residents, we have historically had referendums on important issues on our waterfront and this is no different."

Risser, 71, a former member of the Dalí board, shared his unhappiness about Maltzan's inclusion on a recent Dalí program in a letter to museum director Hank Hine. At least two of the anti-Lens group's financial backers sit on the Dalí board. Tom James, executive chairman of Raymond James Financial, is president. Bill Hough, a generous donor to the arts and other causes, is assistant treasurer. Despite some objections, the Maltzan event went on.

"This kind of bully tactics is not something that the WOW people have been doing," said Hal Freedman, 70, a Realtor and financial services consultant who has a view of the Pier from his downtown home.

Freedman is a staunch supporter of both the Lens and architect Wannemacher. The project also has been endorsed by the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce. Wannemacher, 50, who sits on the chamber's board of governors, has been hired by the city for a number of projects over the years.

Concerned Citizens' president Bill Ballard defends his group against accusations of bullying.

"There are people who are very passionate about the Pier. I don't know what they are all doing. I can say categorically that those of us on the board that are trying to run this campaign have not encouraged any such activity on anyone's part," he said.

Ballard questioned the transparency of Sullivan's group, which unlike Concerned Citizens is not an official political committee and does not have to submit a campaign treasurer's report.

"We don't know where his money is coming from," Ballard said.

Sullivan, who says he is using his own money for the pro-Lens effort — "with a little help from my friends" — said WOW is an advocacy, not a political, group.

According to Sullivan, some on the anti-Lens side have also tried to intimidate Steve Westphal, owner of Parkshore Grill, 400 Beach Seafood & Tap House and the Hangar Restaurant and Flight Lounge at Albert Whitted Airport.

"Yes, that's true," said Westphal, 53, who also runs Cafe Gala at the Dalí. "But I call it the lunatic fringe. It's almost like being Republican or Democrat, no matter what side you are on, you stand to lose because the opposite poles want to vote with their checkbooks."

Jannus Live owner Jeff Knight, 50, said that days before Sullivan's Rock the Lens concert in December, some Lens opponents tried to sabotage the event.

"Actually, they had reached out and tried to contact the band directly. … They told them not to play," Knight said.

Ballard, 75, disassociated his group from such actions.

"I acknowledge that, regarding the Dalí, we have strong supporters who are in a position of influence. That's the only instance I can think of where our supporters voiced their concern, but they happened to voice their concern in an institution in which they were very active participants in the creation of that institution," he said.

As for the Tiger Bay program, Ballard said a friend in the club told his group about Sullivan's and Wannemacher's upcoming appearance.

"He told me he had contacted the program chairman to get us on," Ballard said.

Tiger Bay president Anne Drake McMullen said guest speakers have already been scheduled through June for the club, whose guests are invited to talk about political and public issues of interest.

"We'll see if there is interest in a second program," she said. "It certainly will be considered."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283.

Accusations and denials fly in St. Petersburg Pier battle 03/08/13 [Last modified: Friday, March 8, 2013 9:35pm]

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