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St. Petersburg mayoral candidates divided over what to do with the Pier

St. Petersburg is due $50 million from Pinellas County in 2012 for improvements on the Pier, but city officials think much of that money could be put to better use.

EDMUND FOUNTAIN | Times (2008)

St. Petersburg is due $50 million from Pinellas County in 2012 for improvements on the Pier, but city officials think much of that money could be put to better use.

ST. PETERSBURG — Bulldoze it. Rebuild it. Move it closer to shore. Add a splash pad.

There are nine candidates for mayor and between them, just as many ideas on what to do with downtown's Pier.

The differences among the mayoral candidates reflect the overall uncertainty citywide over how to tackle the heavily subsidized Pier.

The iconic waterfront attraction has been a money pit for decades.

This year's budgeted subsidy of $1.52 million is expected to grow to $1.64 million because of declining retail sales and recently approved rent reductions designed to help the Pier's small businesses through the recession.

A recent report found taxpayers could save $1 million annually simply by closing the Pier.

In 2012, the county will give the city $50 million for the Pier. A new city task force will figure out how to use the money, most of which may be needed for structural repairs.

Candidates for mayor offer their opinions

Here is what the mayoral candidates had to say:

Real estate investor Scott Wagman said the city needs to cut its losses during these tough financial times and close the Pier while city leaders figure out what to do with the $50 million.

Ultimately, he thinks the city should use the money to build a new entertainment center closer to the shore to make it more accessible for those unable or unwilling to walk so far.

Business executive Deveron Gibbons said he would create a citizens group of neighborhood and business leaders to figure out what to do with the Pier.

"It's a great landmark," Gibbons said. "But it has the potential of being a liability, so we have to figure out whether we are going to change it or whether we are going to maintain it."

The Pier would be one of his administration's top issues, he said.

Homeless advocate Paul Congemi said he wants to keep the Pier open, but he doesn't know how to reduce the subsidy.

The $50 million should be used to repair the existing Pier, he said, and he added, "We should spend whatever we need to keep it running and whatever is left, give it back."

Democratic activist Alex Haak said the Pier is too important to close. He said he would seek federal stimulus dollars to help pay for repairs.

Haak would use the $50 million to upgrade and modernize the existing Pier. He said he has a plan to reduce the subsidy, but was not yet ready to share it with the public.

Council member Jamie Bennett said he would immediately transform the Pier's third floor, which is mostly vacant, into a conference center and reception hall. He would add a splash pad and other recreational activities.

He also would ask Saturday Morning Market organizers to hold the weekly event at the Pier.

"We need to look at ways of making it attractive today," he said. "We have to drive people to the Pier now."

'Extreme makeover' or a brand-new Pier?

Bennett said the $50 million should be used to build a new Pier reminiscent of the original Mediterranean-style Pier of the 1920s, which he said was better suited for retail and events.

Former council member Bill Foster said the Pier should stay open until the community figures out what to do with it.

"It's not prudent to mothball it," he said. "It is a symbol of whatever St. Petersburg is in terms of tourism and the waterfront."

Foster said he will give voters final say on the Pier's future.

But his preference is to repair the existing Pier and give it an "extreme makeover" or build a new Pier closer to the shore.

Repairing the existing Pier with few changes is a bad idea because the attraction is not profitable, he said.

Former council member Kathleen Ford said she would hold a voter referendum as soon as possible to let residents decide.

She said she would hire an engineering firm to come up with design options based on resident input from last year's Pier visioning sessions. Voters could then pick the option they like best.

Cost will dictate what action is taken

Minister Sharon Russ said the city should continue to subsidize the Pier to support the small-business owners there.

The $50 million should be used to repair the existing Pier, she said, or, if the economy does not improve, the city should bulldoze it and return the money to the county.

"Right now, we need to save as much money as we can," she said.

Former council member Larry Williams said he wants to save the Pier, but with the city potentially facing a $20 million loss in property tax revenue, that might not be an option. If his administration cannot figure out how to reduce the subsidy, he said he might have no choice but to close the Pier.

"People with families needing jobs is more important than continuing to subsidize something that we have been subsidizing for all these years," he said.

St. Petersburg mayoral candidates divided over what to do with the Pier 03/20/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 23, 2009 2:58pm]
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