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Thousands mark St. Petersburg Pier's final day

ST. PETERSBURG

Two plastic cups sat side by side on the bar, empty but for a few cubes of melting ice. They had, moments earlier, been filled with Coke and Captain Morgan, the last drinks ever served at Cha Cha Coconuts.

"I'm just kind of enjoying the moment," said Bill Shadley, but his face displayed anything but joy. It was 9:30 p.m. All around him, tables had been cleared and chairs stacked upside down on the bar.

It was a melancholy last call for the Pier.

Shadley, 53, and his sister, Bobbi Ison, 49, had planned this moment of gloom months ago when they first learned the Pier's closing date. Shadley remembers when the Pier was built. When his father brought him down for ice cream. When the old men smoked real Cuban cigars and sat along the water's edge playing dominoes.

For 40 years, people have called the colorful triangle jutting into Tampa Bay an inverted pyramid. Actually, the Pier was something far more magical: a generator of special memories.

People celebrated major events there — birthdays, anniversaries, weddings. Couples went on first dates. Kids hauled in their first fish, explored what looked like a real pirate ship, gorged on sweets. Tourists tried on funny hats, bought trinkets and loud T-shirts, tossed food to the pelicans, aimed their cameras across the water.

On Friday, the Pier's final day of operation, thousands flocked there, hoping to generate a few new memories and revisit some old ones. Scores stood in the median on the approach, held up their phones and snapped final photos. They lined the railing on the fifth floor, enjoying for one last time the view of the city skyline, or searched the bay for leaping dolphins.

They came in wheelchairs, in strollers, on skateboards, on foot and in car after car. The trolleys were packed, the drivers clanging their bells like crazy.

Many said they were unhappy about the City Council's decision to close the building now and demolish it this fall. For Linda Cherry, the Pier has been around for nearly all her life. Tearing it down, she said, is unthinkable.

"It's like tearing me down," she said.

The nostalgic influx began last weekend, when an estimated 20,000 people filed through. Then stores that hadn't already closed began slashing prices, drawing bargain hunters. By Thursday the atmosphere seemed like a cross between a hurricane party and a fire sale.

On Friday the mood turned more somber, a wake for an old friend who had fallen on hard times.

"I've lived here all my life and this is part of St. Petersburg's DNA," said Jimmy Fashner. "And it feels almost like we're losing a limb."

Sara Hoffman, 30, remembered when visits to the Pier were happy occasions. As a kid she was obsessed with riding the trolley, and relished dipping a hand in the aquarium's touch-tank.

"I used to love when it was summertime, and there'd be musicians, and you could see the lights and everything from town," she said.

The Pier's appeal held for old and young. Four girls in nice dresses, one holding a rose, showed up after their eighth-grade graduation dance at Meadowlawn Middle School. The girls said the Pier was their go-to hang-out spot, more fun than going to the movies or out for ice cream.

"We'll miss this," Aliyah Tutson said.

People came from near and far to bid farewell. Lisa Padilla, her husband, Sebastian Lobez, and their son, Jonathon, 13, drove three hours from Cape Coral.

"For more than 25 years we've been coming here,'' Padilla said. "We come at Easter and we go to church at St. Mary's, have dinner here and go home."

The family hoped to get one last dinner at the Columbia Restaurant, but hadn't called ahead. The restaurant had already logged in 1,000 reservations for tables on the final day.

Owner Richard Gonzmart, busy signing autographs, wore a polo shirt with his father's image. The family had thought Cesar Gonzmart was cuckoo to open the Columbia and Cha Cha Coconuts at the Pier in 1988. Since then the businesses have paid the city over $10 million for their leases, he said

"It's a bittersweet day," he said, vowing to build a new restaurant once city officials figure out what they're going to build as a replacement.

Gonzmart's staff told the Cape Coral family the restaurant would try to work them in.

"If we don't, we're all right," Padilla said. "It's just a historical moment for us."

When the Pier opened in January 1973, Richard Nixon was in the White House and Curtis Mayfield's Superfly was on the radio. The sagging Million Dollar Pier, a remnant of 1920s boom times, had been torn down six years before. City officials had struggled with a replacement, with the cost doubling from $2 million to $4 million.

In a state full of odd architecture —- the Coral Castle in Miami, the dinosaur gas station in Spring Hill and the minaret-topped University of Tampa —- the Pier looked like nothing else. Yet its shape had a practical purpose. William Harvard Sr. designed it as an inverted pyramid to minimize the interruption of the view of the bay from the shoreline. A Times editorial insisted, "No one can say the Pier is not a treat for the eyes," though not everyone agreed.

By 1977, though, saltwater erosion was eating at its supports, and the city could not keep up with the maintenance costs. While the center is supported by four caissons built in the '70s, the surrounding structure and its approach rest on pilings from 1926. City officials estimate the cost to repair and keep the current building exceeds the $50 million they've projected for something new.

Yet everywhere you looked Friday, there were signs opposing a design called the Lens, and grumbling about voting out the officials who'd backed it. At the Crystal Mirage glass shop, owner Carol Gray wore a Stop the Lens button as she assisted customers.

"I am done, my business is done," she said. "It breaks my heart. I'll just have to go get a real job."

During a midday downpour, people came wading through ankle-deep puddles. They stripped the store selling souvenirs of the Pier. Some chose less expensive mementoes, prying up bricks and leaving behind instant potholes.

In the late afternoon a gospel group said their farewell by serenading the passers-by with sweet harmonies. As the sun set, the group snapped their fingers and clapped their hands and sang about going to Heaven to live "in a city so bright and fair."

Amid the crush of last-day gawkers, Joe Robinson, 61, seemed out of place in his navy blue jumpsuit and military boots. People stared, but he paid them no mind. Robinson had finished his floor-cleaning job, sped home on his bicycle and grabbed his camera gear. Then he pedaled another 2½ miles to the Pier, trying to make it before sunset. He set up a tripod, then zoomed his camera onto a passing fishing boat, a trio of pelicans, the people high above on the fifth floor.

When Robinson first came here 27 years ago, he'd go on long swims with his cousins and siblings, or sit on the Pier's edge, contemplating the water. He'll share his video with the family who couldn't come see it for themselves.

"There's always going to be memories," he said, tapping the camera. "That's what I got right here."

Times staff writers Katherine Snow Smith, Dan Sullivan, Lisa Gartner, Zachary T. Sampson, Lauren Carroll, Anna M. Phillips and researchers Caryn Baird and Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com

PIER FACTS

Opened: January 1973.

Closed: Friday.

Demolition scheduled: September 2013

Cost to tear it down: $15 million

Reason: Would cost more to repair it than to replace it.

Replacement: Uncertain at this point.

WHAT'S NEXT: The city will restrict access to the Pier approach for two weeks to allow the city and merchants to get property out of the structure. After that, the approach will be reopened — at least through the summer — until demolition. The Pier itself will be surrounded by a fence.

Pier facts

. Opened: January 1973

. Closed: Friday

. Demolition: scheduled for September

. Cost to tear it down: $15 million

. Reason: Would cost more to repair it than to replace it.

. Replacement: Uncertain at this point.

What's next

The city will restrict access to the Pier approach for two weeks to allow the city and merchants to get property out of the structure. After that, the approach will be reopened — at least through the summer — until demolition. The Pier itself will be surrounded by a fence.

Thousands mark St. Petersburg Pier's final day 05/31/13 [Last modified: Saturday, June 1, 2013 10:34am]
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