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Locals gather for final toast to the St. Petersburg Pier

ST. PETERSBURG — It was a going-away party of sorts, a Saturday evening social to say goodbye. Most of the guests were locals, some were natives.

With a cool sea breeze tempering the heat as the sun fell to the horizon, hundreds strolled about the top of the St. Petersburg Pier with drinks in hand, waiting to bid goodbye to a local landmark.

The mood was neither somber, nor totally joyous. The purpose was not political, though chatter about the Pier's future was inevitable here, a mere two weeks away from the day of its scheduled closing.

On this Saturday evening, the theme was one of celebration as people gathered for what was billed as a "Toast to the Pier."

"It's a nice way to send it off," said Ester Venouziou, director of LocalShops1, a coalition of local businesses that organized the event. "We're not for the Lens or anti-Lens, but it's definitely been very divisive."

Amid the crowd of about 200, there were those nostalgic for the Pier as it is now and those supportive of the proposed Lens design, which is slated to be built in its place.

"I think it's cool that in my lifetime I'm going to get to see three Piers," said Ron Stein, who grew up in Tampa and remembered the days before the inverted pyramid was built. "It's time for a new beginning," he said. "The pyramid is interesting, but it's not iconic. People don't come here to see it. I think the Lens has that potential."

The evening toast was preceded by a daylong event featuring the work of local artists, a water ski show, and music from a live band. As people gathered on the top floor, they were treated to specialized cocktail drinks, courtesy of three of the Pier's restaurants.

At 7 p.m., longtime local news anchor Arch Deal, who donned a tuxedo amid a sea of T-shirts and shorts, took to a microphone.

He spoke of the Pier's history, from the time it was established in 1889, to its days as a casino known as the "Million Dollar Pier." Since the inverted pyramid opened in 1973, he said, 64 million people have walked through its doors.

Deal said he is concerned for those employed at the Pier's businesses, but said he is not opposed to the Lens.

"I'm always optimistic," Deal said. "If it comes out and works great, that's wonderful."

At 7:50, as the crowd readied for the final toast by filling champagne glasses, bagpiper Josh Adams stood before them and belted out two celebratory tunes.

A series of speakers took to the microphone to share their thoughts on the Pier and their memories of it. Amateur photographer Velva Lee Heraty spoke of her collection of photos depicting downtown St. Petersburg. In all of her photos, she said, she could not find a single one that didn't have part of the Pier in it.

"The thing that I want to acknowledge is that the Pier has been a significant asset to the imagery of the city," Heraty said. "I'm sorry to see it go, but go it must."

"No!" someone shouted.

"Stop the Lens!" said someone else.

Heraty reminded them that the Toast was not political.

And in the end, it was not.

With the final rays of sunlight glinting off the water behind her, Susan Robertson, the Pier's marketing director, took to the microphone for the final toast. The crowd raised their glasses.

"To the Pier," she said.

Locals gather for final toast to the St. Petersburg Pier 05/18/13 [Last modified: Saturday, May 18, 2013 11:02pm]

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