ST. PETERSBURG — From Coffee Pot Bayou to a lackluster port, St. Petersburg's waterfront park system has long stirred civic pride and debate.
Lately, it has become the primary battleground over the power of individual voters to shape the city's future.
The city's Charter Review Commission held its final public hearing Monday and almost all conversation centered on the waterfront — particularly plans to build a new city Pier. Civic activists and neighborhood leaders said the city should require a referendum before any waterfront project comes out of the ground — even if the city builds it.
"It's our money, we should be able to vote,'' said downtown resident Bill Stokes.
The charter currently requires a referendum only when the city sells or leases waterfront property to private entities — like the Dali Museum — but not when the city itself is the builder.
"What is constructed on the property is just as important as the sale of the property,'' said Will Michaels of Bahama Shores, "and probably more important than a lease.''
But several business leaders worried that sending every major project to referendum would hamper plans for improvements, including the new Pier. The current one is set to be demolished in 2013 and 30 architects with high-profile projects under their belt are vying to design a new one. The city expects to select the architect in February, long after voters would have weighed in on any charter changes. A public vote requirement could stymie the project, critics say.
"We have a world-class process and world-class architects,'' said Chris Steinocher, president of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce. "Give them time to do what we asked them to do: Dream for us.'
"The waterfront has enough protections. Please allow us to dream.''
Joel Giles, who heads the chamber's public policy committee, suggested that voters tend to resist change. Many existing features now prized by the public were probably controversial in their day, he said.
"Who would have thought 30 years ago that we would have parks within parks for dogs?'' Giles said. "It used to cost a dime to get into North Shore Beach and there was nude sunbathing at Spa Beach.
"To set in stone the current configuration of parks is not to preserve it.''
Cathy Wilson of Woodlawn took umbrage at such suggestions. "What you are saying is that voters are too foolish to make a decision,'' Wilson said. "I don't think taxpayers should be shut out of what their taxes will be used for.''
The charter review board, which looks at city governance every 10 years, must make its final recommendations this month on what questions to put before voters Nov. 8.
The board, nine volunteers appointed by the council and Mayor Bill Foster, have tentatively approved a charter amendment that would require a referendum on construction of all waterfront park projects.
In its current form, the amendment would apply to sports facilities, museums, convention centers, theaters, office buildings, parking garages, performing arts centers and retail space "not specifically tied to the use and enjoyment of the park.''
But speakers on both sides of the referendum issue suggested that the specific list could be confusing and urged the review board to drop it. A museum could just as well be called a cultural center, for example.
Instead, people wanting more direct voter input urged the charter commission to reinstate a proposed amendment that would require a referendum on any city project costing $100 million or more.
The review board dropped that proposal last month after Chamber of Commerce officials said it appeared to target the Tampa Bay Rays, who have lobbied for a new stadium.
But several speakers lauded the idea, saying the $100 million threshold was too high. Voters should have a say on projects over $50 million or $25 million, they said.
"Certainly the expenditure of tax funds for a single city structure in the range of $50 million to $100 million is a major public action,'' said Mike Gully, president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations. "The amendment should apply to all city funded megaprojects.''