ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council's prolonged discussion Thursday night to formally request that Pinellas County allot an additional $14 million to the Pier District, downtown transportation and parking eventually ended with a compromise that passed by a vote of 5-3.
The next vote might not be any easier: Will the council's carefully crafted resolution persuade the Pinellas County Commission to dedicate even more money to the already $66 million Pier?
There is some support on the commission for doing so. But there are also questions about pouring more money into St. Petersburg's prosperous downtown, while other parts of the city and county languish.
"If I had to make a decision today," said County Commission Chair Janet Long, "I would say no."
It was Mayor Rick Kriseman who proposed using money formerly slated for a downtown St. Petersburg transit hub to add amenities to the 26-acre Pier District, which the city hopes will open by the end of 2018.
But Long said she has concerns about that plan: "I haven't heard the formal request from the mayor and I feel very strongly that before we expand the use of the $14 million, we should be able to know what it's going to be used for."
The commissioner wondered if downtown needs more investment: "I also am a little wary of all the dollars going into downtown St. Pete when it is a bustling, hustling place and will continue to be a bustling, hustling place, whether we give it more money, or not one more dime."
And she seemed to wonder about the need for a pier at all: "I just love the natural waterfront. It's gorgeous. Why in the world we won't want to leave it in its natural state, I don't know."
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The city wants the county to reallocate $14 million in tax increment financing, or TIF funds, to the Pier District. Kriseman's original plan was to use the entire amount to add extra features, or "enhancements," to the Pier District, such as a $1.3 million signature art element, $2 million for a floating platform and $1 million for playground equipment.
Some council members chafed at his plan, and a majority said that they did not want to spend all of the money on the Pier District. Thursday's meeting hit a snag when council member Karl Nurse proposed deciding how the $14 million should be spent before sending the request to Pinellas County, believing that would improve the chances of approval.
So they compromised, agreeing that up to $10 million should go to the Pier District and $4 million to transportation and parking throughout downtown.
"I was trying to provide greater clarity that we only wanted part of the money spent on the Pier," Nurse said. He said three county commissioners had told him they were "not keen on all $14 million going to the Pier."
The council's decision won over Commissioner Pat Gerard.
"I like it more than when all $14 million was going to the Pier," she said.
Since the TIF funds were supposed to fund transit, she said it should still be used for transportation. It could help pay for an idea officials are working on: a bus rapid transit line to connect St. Petersburg to St. Pete Beach. She said perhaps that service could be extended to the Pier District.
"I like that better than adding more frills to the Pier," Gerard said.
Commissioner Ken Welch supports the idea of reallocating the funds but hasn't yet committed to doing so.
"It is fiscally neutral to the county," he said. "It won't cost us any more than what was allocated, but I do think that (the) idea of having a more defined use for the money is a good one. I think we can get there, but it has to be a well-defined use of those dollars."
But Welch also wants the commission to discuss "winding down the downtown investment" and focusing TIF and community redevelopment area funds on other areas of the city and county with greater needs.
While Commissioner Karen Seel looks forward to seeing the council's proposal, she wants more details about how the city will spend the $10 million and $4 million allotments.
She said St. Petersburg residents have also voiced their concerns to her about the city's sewers and infrastructure. St. Petersburg's overwhelmed sewage system released more than 200 million gallons of waste into local waterways and neighborhoods last year.
"They are just making sure that the improvements are financed before we dedicate $14 million to a pier," she said, adding that only city money could be spent on sewers.
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After Thursday's vote, there was still opposition on the council to spending more on the district. Council member Steve Kornell, who cast one of the three "no" votes, said there are other projects that need attention along the downtown waterfront.
"I had always said I had concerns about spending an extra $14 million without an understanding of what it is going to be used for," he said, "and I still do."
Council member Amy Foster also did not support last week's decision.
"We have more transportation needs than we put into that pot," she said. "I don't feel that we are fair to bring a request to the commission without having more specifics and having more details nailed down . . .
"I think we need to have more clarity of direction before we move it forward to the County Commission."
Kriseman told the council last week that he would meet with each county commissioner to win their approval. His spokesman, Benjamin Kirby, said the mayor is confident the city's request will be granted.
"He knows the commissioners recognize the importance of the St. Pete Pier," Kirby said, "and the positive economic impact those funds will have."
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.