ST. PETERSBURG — As city officials invite ideas from residents about what they'd like to see at the new Pier, one council member is offering one.
A splash park near Spa Beach is just what's needed, council member Karl Nurse says. But how to pay for it, when the council has set a strict $50 million budget, a limit that does not include a water park in the current design?
Nurse has an answer for what he proposes might be a $300,000 enhancement. "It's very modest and we have a source of funding for that,'' he said.
His plan is to tap into the Weeki Wachee fund, which was created when the city sold a 440-acre recreation area along Weeki Wachee Springs in Hernando County and was earmarked for parks and recreation.
Nurse's City Council colleagues are cautious. A couple say it's too early to make pronouncements about amenities they'd like to see at the Pier when residents have not had a chance to offer ideas of their own. The first of four public input sessions to refine the Pier concept envisioned by Michael Maltzan Architecture of Los Angeles is set for Thursday evening at the Coliseum.
The suggestion of dipping into the Weeki Wachee fund seems to be less of an issue.
"The Weeki Wachee money is there and it's there for parks," council member Steve Kornell said. "If we use some of the money, I don't see it as an incompatible use."
Money to build the Pier is coming from tax increment financing, a combination of city and county property tax dollars. Back in 2005, the City Council and County Commission agreed that $50 million in TIF funding would be used for a new Pier. As they decided to proceed with the project this year, Mayor Bill Foster and council members said the budget for the project would be a firm $50 million.
Kornell bristled at a suggestion that officials might be reneging on their commitment. "I think it's two separate pots of money for two separate uses,'' he said. "I completely disagree that us spending a park fund for a new park makes us go over the budget for the Pier."
Council member Charlie Gerdes said Nurse's idea for a water park at the Pier approach is a good one.
"I think that doing it as a park or as an addition to the existing park at Spa Beach in order to use Weeki Wachee money is good thinking outside the box and it's a way to maximize the energy of the upland with the new Pier without using TIF money,'' Gerdes said.
And no, he said, it's not disingenuous to set a limit for the Pier and then talk about spending more.
"I absolutely demand that it stay within the $50 million. I'm not willing to spend more on the Pier or any of its complements than we said we would spend, but if there are other ways like Weeki Wachee money that can legally be used because it is part of the park system, that's good, because it's not Pier money and it's not TIF money."
Added council member Jeff Danner: "I'm not opposed to looking at other funding sources for Pier amenities as we move further down the road, whether Weeki Wachee or Penny for Pinellas or other grants."
There is $16.7 million in the Weeki Wachee fund, $14.5 million of it the principal, City Administrator Tish Elston said. She added that $2.4 million is available for projects and that 10 parks projects proposed by council members await funding.
Nurse wants his proposed water park to be modeled on the SplashPad at Dell Holmes Park, at 2741 22nd St. S. "For a few hundred thousand dollars, you can bring a park very near the end of the land there,'' he said.
The water play area at Dell Holmes, which opened in 2009, cost about $275,000, said Clarence Scott, the city's leisure and community services administrator. It has an in-ground tank that holds 3,000 gallons of recirculated, chlorinated water that bubbles from the ground, shoots from dolphins, frogs and flowers and pours from colorful arches. It can accommodate about 70 frolickers.
Despite the playground's popularity, Nurse's idea for duplicating it isn't getting immediate support from other council members.
"It seems a little bit premature," council member Leslie Curran said.
"I don't want to sit and dictate what's going out there. … For us to jump out and say that's what we're going to do is not being inclusive of the rest of the community. I think we just need to follow the process."
Council member Bill Dudley agrees. "My feeling is that we shouldn't do anything until we have the downtown waterfront park master plan formalized. We are working on that plan and that needs to be considered and how the Pier is going to tie into all that," he said.
Nurse said the water park idea was brought to him by residents. "What people talk to me about is there's really nothing for kids downtown. ... So for a very modest amount of money, we could have families bring their kids downtown and enjoy the waterfront.''
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.