ST. PETERSBURG — Local architect Lisa Wannemacher expected tough questions when she stepped into the Tiger's den Tuesday to talk about the project slated to replace the city's aging Pier.
Instead, she faced a mostly friendly crowd as she and TV pitchman Anthony Sullivan touted the Lens, one of the most divisive projects in recent city history.
"I was worried for nothing," Wannemacher said after the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club's monthly political luncheon.
One man asked why "anyone in their right mind would volunteer" to walk on the Lens in Florida's sweltering summer heat. Wannemacher countered that misters blow cool air at customers eating outside at Beach Drive restaurants.
Another member urged Wannemacher to install a concert venue on the Lens. Another asked how the Lens would fit in "St. Petersburg's sense of place." A woman questioned whether the Lens would accommodate people with disabilities.
Local blogger Peter Schorsch asked Sullivan what would happen if opposition groups dropped efforts to halt the project and voters were able to decide the outcome in 45 days.
"I don't think that is going to happen," said Sullivan, who vowed to rally voters if the issue gets on a ballot. "I don't think we need another vote."
That decision could come as soon as today during a hearing for summary judgment on former City Council member Kathleen Ford's lawsuit to save the Pier.
A judge could rule for either side, or decide to send the case to trial.
Ford and five other residents filed a lawsuit to force the city to hold a referendum on the Pier's fate. It also asks for a temporary injunction to halt demolition of the Pier, slated for May 31, pending the court's ruling and outcome of a vote.
The approach to the Pier, which opened in 1973, is deteriorating. The city plans to tear it down and replace is with the $50 million Lens project.
The city currently subsidizes the Pier's operation with $1.4 million a year.
During Tuesday's luncheon, Marla Short asked why residents have to subsidize the project.
Wannemacher said the subsidy for the Lens will be half as much, adding: "All parks in the city are subsidized in some way."
The "Stop the Lens" effort includes financiers, philanthropists, art patrons, real estate investors and former Yacht Club commodores. Their group, Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, represents a powerhouse of political and social clout.
Two group members sat near the front of the room. Gene Smith, a political operative with the group, wore a red sweater and kept his hand raised when Wannemacher took questions. She didn't call on him.
When asked after the event why she picked questions from people she knew by first name, Wannemacher replied: "From my vantage point, I didn't see him. I would have called on Gene."
Mark Puente can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.