Monday, December 18, 2017
News Roundup

Local pollster offers help gauging public opinion on Pier

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Bill Foster on Thursday rejected a local pollster's offer to gauge residents' opinions about the future of the Pier.

Known for his political polling and his fight against red-light cameras, Matt Florell appeared before the City Council on Thursday to offer free use of his technology to get a consensus on what St. Petersburg residents want now that they have rebuffed the proposed $50 million Lens project.

Foster did not remain for Florell's presentation, saying he had to leave to prepare the budget. The council voted 5-3 to approve council member Charlie Gerdes' motion recommending that Foster consider Florell's offer to help move the Pier project forward.

But Foster later said he has reservations about Florell's StPetePolls, which has conducted polls of the mayoral and City Council races and the Pier issue. He thinks they sided with Lens opponents.

"They're clearly not objective," he said. "If we can get over that, then we can see where it goes. But we have a plan going forward."

That plan includes conducting "a scientific survey to gain public input as to the desire of St. Petersburg residents as to both form and function" for a Pier, Foster said. He also will seek assistance from the American Institute of Architects "to gauge the temperature of the architectural community in light of the termination" of the contract with Michael Maltzan Architecture, which was to build the Lens.

Foster also promised a larger jury than the one that selected the Lens — and one made up of more local residents — to pick the final design. He said the process will have public input.

"I will be responsible for this process going forward," he said.

Florell, who presented part of a multistep proposal to build consensus, disputed Foster's characterization of his work.

"I don't think bias even factors into gathering input on what people want in a new Pier and the data will be completely open to the city," he said. "The most important thing to me is providing accurate information. Part of our presentation was that, as a final step, we were planning to do a scientific poll."

He had been invited to make his presentation by City Council Chairman Karl Nurse.

"From my perspective, here is an offer for free to have a way to allow more robust input and feedback," Nurse said.

Explaining his plan, Florell said that the first phase would involve asking St. Petersburg residents what amenities they want at a Pier. His surveys would also ask for preferences after costs had been attached. The final list of amenities would be verified through a random-sample scientific telephone poll, he said. The only cost to the city for this first phase would be about $4,000 for water bill inserts alerting residents to the surveys and any other marketing.

Council members Jeff Danner and Leslie Curran seemed unsure about how Florell's effort could move the project ahead.

"Instead of being a local group that did a survey, I think we should look at someone who is completely neutral to do it," Curran said.

Council member Wengay Newton said that any survey should start by finding out whether residents want to keep the inverted pyramid.

Meanwhile, the city's request for a permit to demolish the closed Pier and build the now defunct Lens is being considered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Chris Ballestra, the city's managing director of development coordination, said the Army Corps has offered the city the option to refile its request for demolition alone, or to continue on the current path "in a phased approach, allowing demolition with future permitting" for a potential Pier project.

"We are pursuing the second option," he said.

Additionally, the Florida Department of State's division of historical resources has asked the city to submit a historical survey of the 40-year-old Pier.

When the survey is completed, the department "will decide the Pier's eligibility for the National Register and notify both the Army Corps and the city," spokeswoman Brittany Lesser said.

"It's a fairly normal course of business for a significant structure," Ballestra said, adding that the state cannot prevent the city from demolishing the Pier, regardless of its designation.

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