ST. PETERSBURG — After years of public debate, city leaders still don't know how they should spend $50 million earmarked for downtown's iconic Pier.
They have narrowed the possibilities to three options:
• Remodel the existing inverted pyramid shaped building.
• Shorten the approach and build a new structure closer to the shore.
• Construct a new building on the waterfront and put a fishing and pedestrian pier next to it.
Any future brainstorming will be done by the Miami-based engineering firm Bermello Ajamil & Partners.
The City Council recently approved a $143,000 contract with the firm to develop activities and cost estimates for the different reconstruction and replacement options for the Pier.
The deal was in the works long before the council's Thursday vote.
Mayor Rick Baker and his staff entered into a $10,000 agreement with the firm in August that required the urban planners to study the Pier's financial history and environmental constraints. The firm also has been asked to include comments from the numerous community sessions that were held in recent years.
Salt-eroded pilings and a retail mix aimed at tourists have contributed to the Pier's gradual degeneration.
The aging building earns less than its operational costs. In recent years, the city's annual subsidy has hovered near $1.4 million. Attendance dropped from 1.9 million visitors in 2001 to roughly 1 million in 2008.
City officials have spent decades deliberating potential solutions.
In March, the City Council established the Pier Advisory Task Force to do some of the heavy lifting for them.
The group recommended hiring an architect.
If the city opts to restore the Pier, most of the $50 million likely will be spent on shoring up its foundation.
"They are not going to be there very long," former Mayor Randy Wedding, chairman of the task force, said of the Pier's pilings during a recent council committee meeting. "That stuff has got to go."
Critics say a renovated Pier won't be a success because it is likely to have many of the same problems as the current one because of its faulty design. Others believe the inverted pyramid structure is an icon that needs to be saved.
Like many government-owned amenities, it is probable that public dollars always will be needed to subsidize the Pier's operations, said Ed Montanari, a task force member.
Council member Herb Polson urged city officials to cautiously consider any proposals to restore the Pier.
"The average person will think you just took the $50 million and threw it in the bay," he said.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or [email protected]