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Both sides press on as Pier debate enters final days

Signs on 16th Avenue NE in St. Petersburg express the differing opinions about the project proposed for the city’s waterfront.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Signs on 16th Avenue NE in St. Petersburg express the differing opinions about the project proposed for the city’s waterfront.

ST. PETERSBURG — In the smattering of days before a vote that could halt the $50 million Lens project, supporters on both sides continue the battle.

One side, though, has had its eye set on Tuesday's vote for months now. The other is scrambling to catch up.

The Build the Pier group, which got off to a late start and which polls predict has little chance of success, is feverishly trying to win hearts and minds with web-based and television ads, yard signs, a door-to-door campaign and even an underwater light show designed to give voters a taste of what the new pier could offer.

Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, which aims to stop the project proposed to replace the closed 1973 inverted pyramid on the city's downtown waterfront, is more laser-focused. The group is targeting the more than 20,000 people who signed its petition that brought about Tuesday's referendum, urging them to make their voices heard again, this time at the polls. The organization has made robocalls and mailed postcards to petition signers, including those who supported a previous effort by another group, voteonthepier.com.

"Our strength is in our careful consideration of the weakness of the Lens design," said Bud Risser. "People understand the lack of function. They understand the wisdom of borrowing $50 million to build an art object. And we are comfortable that the majority of voters, when they have thought about this, will support our position."

Heather Grzelka of Build the Pier acknowledges the group is coming from behind, but said the past few weeks have been productive.

"We have seen participation in our Facebook page grow exponentially," she said. "Every weekend that we go out to knock on doors, every community event that we have hosted or participated in, we have seen new faces, new supporters, new volunteers join us."

Grzelka said the group plans to fan out across the city this weekend.

"Sunday, we are very excited. On our Facebook page at 5 p.m., there will be a huge social media blitz," she said. "We will also have volunteers at some of the polls providing information."

The other side will too.

"And we will be continuing to point out that the Lens lacks function," said Fred Whaley, Concerned Citizens' chairman. "They talk about the Eiffel Tower and how it was an iconic structure, but the Eiffel Tower has four restaurants. It has function … We need to have a pier that has function for the families and the boaters and the tourists of St. Petersburg."

When they go to the polls Tuesday, voters will be asked whether they want to cancel the contract with Michael Maltzan Architecture, designer of the Lens. A no vote means the Lens will be built. A yes vote means a new process will be launched to decide what should grace the city's downtown waterfront.

"There's a lot of people out there who don't understand the ballot," said Grzelka. "When we explain what is at stake, when we explain what the referendum states, I find that people, for the most part, support the city moving forward."

There's no guarantee that Tuesday's election will end the contentiousness. Mayor Bill Foster's 828 Alliance — so named to reflect the day after the referendum — is set to formally make recommendations Wednesday for proceeding with the Lens if voters embrace it, or suggest a process to build something else.

Lawyer Raleigh "Lee" Greene, a federal court-certified mediator, has been facilitating discussions among the group, which has included people on both sides of the divisive issue.

"It's been very productive," and "somewhat pleasantly surprising that this much work was able to be compressed into the time frame," he said.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283.

.Fast facts

Election night

Build the Pier election watch, 6–10 p.m., Rooftop Canopy Lounge, the Birchwood, 340 Beach Drive, NE, St. Petersburg.

Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg election watch party, 7 p.m., Orange Blossom Catering, 220 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg.

Both sides press on as Pier debate enters final days 08/23/13 [Last modified: Saturday, August 24, 2013 12:22am]
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