ST. PETERSBURG — The thought of losing the St. Petersburg Pier brought Callie Smith, 19, to tears.
The iconic inverted pyramid structure is the place where she caught her first fish, she told the crowd gathered in the Pier's food court for a strategy meeting Wednesday night. It's where she comes to talk to a friend or hear her own thoughts.
"It's beautiful here at night. I don't want to see it go," she said.
Smith vowed that her signature will be one of 16,000 on a petition needed to force a public vote on the facility's future on the Nov. 8, 2011, ballot. Her mother, Chris Johnson, 53, vowed to sign it, too.
There was no actual petition to sign Wednesday night, though. That document is being drafted by lawyers and will be made available when a political action committee is formed on Oct. 1.
About 60 people sat for more than an hour Wednesday night to listen to Thomas R. Lambdon, a Safety Harbor businessman who is organizing the petition effort. Lambdon, who grew up in St. Petersburg, said he is motivated by the outrage he and others feel over the City Council's vote in August to tear down the 37-year-old building.
Urged by Mayor Bill Foster, the council voted 7-1 to demolish the Pier and build a structure closer to shore. The city will have $50 million available for the project in 2012, and construction begins in 2014.
Council member Wengay Newton, who was the lone dissenter, also spoke at the gathering. He was presented with a pink life preserver that read "Thanks, Wengay." Newton said his colleagues on the council forced the issue without public input.
"We should have asked you, straight up, 'What do you want to do with this structure?' " he told the crowd.
Jon Benedict, 50, a maintenance man at St. Anthony's Hospital, started a chant.
"Hell no, Pier don't go!" he hollered, and was joined by many of the others.
Lambdon, 57, has been vocal about the Pier in the past. He was part of an effort in the early 1990s to bring a 2,800-foot roller coaster to the Pier building. Touted as the world's longest roller coaster that would travel over water, plans for the Suncoaster are still featured on savethepier.org, which Lambdon founded to organize the current protest.
He was also involved in efforts to bring a Disney-style motion simulator theater, first to the Pier, then to John's Pass in Madeira Beach. None of those was successful.
Many at Wednesday's meeting talked about a common history based on the one-of-a-kind upside down pyramid, which opened in 1973. This is the Pier, they said, that the current generation and their parents know.
After an earlier pier was destroyed by a hurricane, the city opened the Mediterranean-style Million Dollar Pier in 1926. That building was demolished in 1967 after it slid into disrepair.
Consultants have told the city that the current Pier's structural beams, which date to the 1920s, are deteriorated, and that it isn't economical to fix them. For more than a year, a task force has discussed options for what to do with the Pier.
But Carol Gray, 61, longtime owner of the Crystal Mirage Gallery on the first floor of the Pier, scoffed at those assessments.
"They're shooting themselves in the foot if they tear this down. Have you been here on a Sunday?" she said. "Spend the money and fix it up."
As she spoke, a deep voice came from the Zoltar Fortune Teller machine in the Pier lobby.
Zoltar will give you some words of wisdom it beckoned.
"We need some wisdom on the City Council," Gray said.
Luis Perez can be reached at (727)892-2271 or [email protected]