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Columbia restaurateur says he will wait for new pier, despite uncertainty

ST. PETERSBURG — The uncertainty swirling around plans for a new pier will not deter the Gonzmart family from reopening a waterfront restaurant in the city, the family's patriarch said Tuesday.

"I am not turning my back on St. Petersburg unless St. Petersburg tells me they don't want me," said Richard Gonzmart, president of the Columbia Restaurant Group. "I am interested in the development of the waterfront. If they want to save the Pier, I am willing to help."

His popular Columbia restaurant served its last meals to wistful crowds in May, as the inverted pyramid prepared to close amid plans for a replacement called the Lens. When voters rejected the new project a few months later, they also dashed Gonzmart's hope to reopen a Columbia as part of the $50 million project.

Plans for a new pier are proceeding at a glacial pace. The city still must get permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to demolish the old Pier. This week, Army Corps spokeswoman Nancy Sticht said the agency is "awaiting direction" from the city concerning its joint application that originally sought to both tear down the old Pier and build the Lens.

Additionally, a committee appointed by Mayor Bill Foster has emphasized the need to gauge the opinion of residents at every stage of the process that will be used to decide on a new project.

The tenuous nature of the project, however, hasn't prompted Gonzmart to accept offers for a temporary St. Petersburg location for his family's signature restaurant.

"To do that would be foolish," Gonzmart said. "When we go into a restaurant, we go in long-term. Short-term for me is 15 years."

City business leaders appreciate Gonzmart's patience.

"I am just excited and appreciative of the Gonzmart family's continued interest in St. Petersburg," said Chris Steinocher, president and chief executive of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce.

"There's no doubt our city has a heartfelt connection with the Gonzmart family," he said. "To have them still interested in investing in our waterfront is big news."

He said the chamber is concerned about the delay in constructing a new pier, especially because people like the Gonzmarts will have to delay investing in the city.

Bob Churuti, co-director with John Hamilton Jr. of more than 50,000 square feet of their family-owned Beach Drive retail property, said he would welcome Gonzmart's return to the waterfront.

"We have a critical mass of restaurants on Beach Drive," Churuti said. "Richard's restaurant was completely different from any of the existing restaurants, so we never felt that we were competing with them or they were competing with us."

He would prefer, though, that a new Columbia restaurant be located at the pier "and not at the uplands," he said, referring to the pier approach, "and it doesn't exceed the square footage that is there now."

Churuti, who sat on the Pier Advisory Task Force, cautioned that he, like many St. Petersburg residents, wants to preserve the downtown waterfront. He is willing to give the Columbia a little leeway if a pier location can't be worked out, but doubts most residents will agree.

"For the longest time, it was the only restaurant of its size and caliber that we had in St. Petersburg," he said. "We were always completely underserved."

Gonzmart said he turned down an offer for waterfront property in Fort Myers for one on the pier approach as part of the Lens project and a small cafe on the Lens itself. He had planned to invest more than $4 million and create more than 135 jobs.

The proposed endeavor developed after a meeting with Foster, who is facing a re-election battle on Nov. 5 with former state representative Rick Kriseman.

"I will sit down with whoever the mayor is," Gonzmart said, adding, however, that he believes in Foster.

"I never saw eye to eye with Mayor Foster, but after a while, I learned to trust him and his vision for St. Petersburg," he said.

His fifth generation, family-owned company first opened at the Pier in 1988, along with Cha Cha Coconuts on the roof. Gonzmart, who said the two businesses accounted for about 53 percent of the Pier's sales, credits his late father, Cesar Gonzmart, with the idea for the St. Petersburg restaurants.

Like his father, he will remain loyal to the city and invest in any pier, Gonzmart said.

"I'm putting my neck on the line," he said. "I just feel destined to be part of this city's waterfront."

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com.

Columbia restaurateur says he will wait for new pier, despite uncertainty 10/01/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 1, 2013 5:19pm]
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