ST. PETERSBURG — It was a perfect setting for Mayor Bill Foster's announcement, waters of Tampa Bay lapping close by and the city's landmark 1973 Pier rising in the distance.
"It gives me great pleasure to announce that the city of St. Petersburg has reached an agreement, in principle, subject to City Council approval and subject to a publication of a notice in the newspaper, (on) a partnership with the Columbia Restaurant," the mayor told the small crowd gathered in a parking lot for his news conference.
What Foster's parenthetical fine print meant was that the Columbia agreement — greeted with euphoria by supporters of the city's planned $50 million Pier known as the Lens — is far from a done deal.
State law requires that St. Petersburg must now invite other businesses to submit proposals for the same prime spots where the Columbia hopes to open as part of the new Pier.
The mayor's public announcement notwithstanding, the Columbia agreement could be scuttled by a better offer.
But Foster doesn't appear worried.
"If anything comes up, we'll talk," he said. "It's hard to beat the Columbia."
Richard Gonzmart, president of the family-owned Columbia Restaurant Group, is less sanguine.
"I gave my proposal and now I have everything to lose,'' he said. "We had a lot of other opportunities coming our way, some very lucrative opportunities.
"I hope we will be selected."
Council member Wengay Newton is incensed by what he describes as a lack of transparency in reaching the proposed Columbia agreement.
"It had shoot, ready, aim, all over it, which is the theme of this administration,'' he said. "They do stuff and don't think about it. You come out with what is obviously a back-room deal and then try to cover yourself, because you know you have done something wrong.
"I don't think that it is going to be offered to anybody else. Look at what is happening. You think anyone is going to waste their time and submit a proposal? (The mayor) had a press conference. … You're putting the wagon before the horses. You picked the guy."
Newton, who opposes the new Pier, added that the city could have gotten a better deal had it requested proposals first.
That had been the plan, said Chris Ballestra, the city's managing director of development coordination. But Gonzmart approached Foster with his offer.
"Had we received an offer from anybody else, I'm not sure we would have done it this way," Ballestra said.
"They are a local, homegrown, high-quality product with whom we have a relationship, and they are qualified,'' he said. "We have such a positive relationship with them and we want them in St. Petersburg."
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The Columbia opened at the Pier in 1988 and also operates Cha Cha Coconuts, a bar and grill, on the roof. Gonzmart said the two businesses account for about 53 percent of the sales at the Pier. His family wants to be part of the Lens, with a waterside Columbia on its approach and a smaller operation on the Lens itself, he said.
"I believe that we offer a unique concept,'' he said. "We are a family that is committed to the community and our track record speaks for itself.
"If the city selects somebody else, I can't do anything. I don't know anybody who is going to come in there and invest $3 million for 10 years. I am building an asset for the city of St. Petersburg. I don't own it. I will never own it."
City Council member Charlie Gerdes, who said the city is following the correct legal process, is a fan.
"This is right. This is meant to be," he said of the proposed arrangement with the Columbia. Still, he would consider other proposals.
"Is it a place that has been around? Can we count on it being here? Its business points, are they better? From my perspective, the Columbia would still have to match up equally or better to any economic sustainability," he said.
The proposed Columbia lease developed after Gonzmart met with Foster late last year and continued discussions with city staff.
The proposed initial 10-year lease calls for the Columbia to pay a minimum annual rent of $15 per square foot at the Hub — an area to be located at the Pier's Pelican parking lot — for the first five years and $20 for the next five. The company would pay $10 per square foot for space at the Lens. The city would receive a percentage of annual sales from both sites.
Meanwhile, the city has published a newspaper notice inviting alternative proposals. April 2 is the deadline. In keeping with the City Charter for some downtown waterfront property, the lease is limited to 10 years, but the Columbia would be allowed to request a new 10-year agreement during the last three years of its lease.
Bud Risser, a leader of the group Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, which is battling to halt the Lens, accused the city of using "sleight of hand" to give the Columbia a longer lease than allowed for waterfront property.
"I think that Mr. Gonzmart certainly should be a credible restaurateur for our waterfront and should be given every consideration, but the city is sidestepping the issue of a referendum by playing a game with a lease plus an option," he said.
"That's unfortunate, because I think that this and everything else that goes on our waterfront should be subject to a referendum, which in Mr. Gonzmart's case would be approved."
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The city's method of handling the lease after-the-fact is not unusual, said Bruce Grimes, the city's director of real estate and property management. A similar method was used with property now occupied by the GTE Federal Credit Union at 18th Avenue S and 22nd Street, Grimes said. An alternative proposal was made by Larry Newsome, whose company built Tangerine Plaza, site of the recently closed Sweetbay supermarket, he said.
In the case of the Lens, "If we were to get three or four other proposals, we will have to factually analyze all of those and try to determine what is in the best interest of the city and review it with the mayor to determine what the administration's recommendation to the council will be," he said.
Meanwhile, said Ballestra, he hopes a lease can go before the council by early summer.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.