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The Pier is a money pit, but most want to keep it anyway

ST. PETERSBURG — It will cost taxpayers $1.5 million this year alone.

Saltwater has corroded its foundation, requiring costly repairs.

Locals think it's lame, and tourists aren't flocking there either.

Still, most everyone — City Hall insiders, mayoral hopefuls and disenchanted residents — wants to keep the Pier open.

It won't be cheap.

Mayor Rick Baker has recommended that the City Council agree today to give struggling Pier tenants $40,000 more in rent reductions, the second such request in three months.

If approved, more than half of the Pier's tenants will have received rent reductions, creating a $106,737 budget deficit.

Without the lower rates, Baker said, spurned retailers could flee, leaving the city with a semivacant attraction only a brisk walk from the foundering BayWalk complex.

"The Pier is one of the amenities downtown, just like the Mahaffey Theater, Straub Park, BayWalk, the Coliseum, all of that is subsidized by the city and has been for as long as I know," Baker said.

Those kinds of amenities help attract people and development, he said.

The council also will vote today to form a 20-member task force that will determine how to spend the $50 million the county has set aside to rebuild the aging attraction starting in 2012.

What to do with the ailing Pier has stumped city leaders for decades. The waterfront icon loses, on average, $1.4 million every year.

"One of the reasons that the older pier was torn down was because it was eating the city's lunch," said former Mayor Randy Wedding, who has been tapped to lead the Pier task force. "The repairs and maintenance were just awful on the city's budget."

City officials said they are looking for ways to cut costs.

They've asked Urban Retail, the property management company that runs the Pier, to prioritize its expenses.

The company has stopped using the Pier trolley to transport its employees from the parking lots along the approach to the upside-down pyramid. It also has switched to waterless urinals for men and LED lights to cut back on energy and water costs. Real plants were swapped for silk impressions. A pay freeze will go into effect for the 2010 fiscal year.

However, the changes will barely make a dent in the Pier's subsidy, acknowledged Don Paul, the Pier's property manager. "There is no silver bullet," he said.

Meanwhile, an increasingly frustrated council has begun to point fingers.

Council member Wengay Newton said Urban is "raping" the city by charging excessive fees. Urban collects $165,859 in annual management fees. The company also receives commissions on tenant lease renewals and earns bonuses for reducing the city's subsidy.

Newton said high-ranking city staff could be overseeing the Pier's daily operations without Urban's help. For example, Chris Ballestra, the city's downtown enterprise facilities manager, earns $102,000.

"Why are people making six-figure salaries and just riding around not doing anything?" Newton said. "If you are going to make that kind of money, earn it. If you want to be in charge of the waterfront, run it."

Ballestra said the city is considering taking over the Pier when Urban's contract expires in 2011. City leaders also are looking at creating trolley stops to link the Pier to other downtown attractions in an effort to drum up attendance.

Council Chairman Jeff Danner said residents tell him the Pier is worth saving.

"The views are amazing," he said.

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@stptimes.com.

Management fees

$178,200 in 2001

$165,859 in 2008

Repairs and maintenance

$698,572 in 2001

$705,537 in 2008

Subsidy

$1.37 million in 2001

$1.53 million in 2008

The Pier is a money pit, but most want to keep it anyway 03/19/09 [Last modified: Friday, March 20, 2009 4:01pm]
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