ST. PETERSBURG — Let the yelling begin! Anthony Sullivan, former business partner of the late Billy Mays, the screaming pitchman for the likes of Kaboom! and OxiClean, has thrown himself into what until now has been an uneven quarrel about St. Petersburg's Pier.
Sullivan is defending the Lens, the proposed replacement for the current Pier that detractors have denigrated as a useless piece of art. The international television pitchman is doing some name calling of his own, accusing those who hate the Lens of "misinformed, fuddy-duddy thinking."
"I think we are on the way to shaking the shuffleboard image and I think the Lens will solidify our place as the most famous city in Florida. I don't think people realize what's at stake here. I want to be a voice for the Lens," said the host of infomercials for such products as Swivel Sweeper, Taplight and Foodsaver.
"I think like many, I've been a passive bystander. … I think the current St. Petersburg Pier is an embarrassment and an eyesore. It's a blight on the community."
The St. Petersburg resident said he was jolted into action after seeing Stop the Lens supporters at a recent Saturday Morning Market.
"I got incensed. I saw a bunch of people in red t-shirts waving signs and I decided I have to get involved,'' he said, adding that no one asked him to launch his campaign to support the $50 million project and that he is receiving no money for his effort.
Fred Whaley, chair of Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, an anti-Lens group, grew up in the city.
"Everybody is entitled to their own opinion about the waterfront and how it should be developed to include a new Pier, or if someone desires to keep the old Pier,'' he said. "There was a survey done that said about 70 percent didn't want the Lens. In my experience, I'm having a hard time finding even the 30 percent who like the Lens. Almost everybody I meet says it doesn't have the character or the size or functionality that St. Petersburg would like in a Pier.''
Council member Jeff Danner, a Lens supporter, is pleased with Sullivan's plans, saying they complement what the Michael Maltzan Architecture design team is doing to educate the public.
"This is good. I think it's a way to get the information out to more people," he said. "People are starting to turn around and get it more. … I think people are realizing that this can be a cool thing."
Colleague Karl Nurse also thinks Sullivan is doing is a good things. The council member recently changed his mind about supporting the project.
"If we can get a broader conversation about whether you think this is a good or bad use of taxpayer money,'' he said, "I think the feedback I have gotten will happen across town and we will stop before we have wasted too much money."
Sullivan, 43, is getting a late start. Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg began its movement weeks ago. Another group, voteonthepier.com, wanted to save the current Pier, but saw its attempt to push a public vote rejected by the City Council.
Monday, hours after Sullivan launched a Facebook page, WOW-Our-Waterfront-St-Pete, there were 97 "likes" along with lots of negative posts.
"I applaud the opposition," Sullivan said, though he was surprised by the animosity.
Sullivan, originally from Britain, has lived in the Tampa Bay area for 19 years. He said he has enjoyed seeing the renaissance of St. Petersburg's downtown and that the new, modern Lens is just what the city needs.
"This is more than the Pier. This is about the St. Petersburg waterfront and I think the Lens has a wow factor. … I think we are so privileged that we have something architecturally significant in St. Petersburg," he said.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.