Polling, politics derailing support for Lens in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — Controversy surrounding the more-than-century-old tradition of piers on the city waterfront is a tradition itself. This time around, the quarrel has divided friends, political allies, business associates and scions of old St. Petersburg families.

In recent days, the Lens' biggest supporters have pulled back. The $50 million project is now on life support.

What happened?

• Days after the inverted pyramid Pier closed May 31, a secret poll conducted by a national firm showed that residents strongly disliked the Lens and wanted a vote on the project.

• That collided with the mayor's race. Challenger Rick Kriseman announced his opposition last week, triggering talk of the Lens giving Kriseman and Kathleen Ford, the other major challenger, an advantage over Mayor Bill Foster.

• The St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce urged city officials Thursday to cancel the contract for the Lens design and start a new process for a replacement.

Even Foster joined the bandwagon and told reporters Thursday that he would ask the council to kill the contract. But he didn't, after countless critics urged that the issue be put to a vote.

Some say politics took over.

"The Lens is polling behind and so is the mayor," council member Leslie Curran said Friday. "It's a huge coincidence that the chamber wanted to end the contract. I think they're afraid of the election results."

The polling numbers helped spark the chamber's change on the Lens, said council Chairman Karl Nurse, adding: "And what essentially happened is that people have made up their minds, and it's more than 2 to 1."

The chamber, as well as many city officials and residents, fear history could repeat itself if the Lens is voted down in an Aug. 27 referendum. After the Million Dollar Pier was torn down in 1967, the city created a $10,000 minipark while council members searched for a replacement.

In December 1968, exasperated business leaders wrote a letter to the City Council demanding they develop a new pier within a year and replace the structure by the 1969 winter season. "Residents and tourists alike," they said, "have been deprived of one of our biggest assets."

The inverted pyramid did not open until 1973.

Fast forward 40 years. Ten hours after Thursday's vote, the chamber shifted its position.

The organization now plans to marshal forces to ensure the Lens survives the referendum.

Chris Steinocher, chamber president, said Friday that the chamber's board feared the referendum would be divisive and delay progress on replacing the Pier. But with the council's vote Thursday to proceed with the August referendum, the chamber is back on board with the Lens.

"We don't believe in voting for nothing," Steinocher said. "Now we are going to encourage our members and our community and those who want to see economic development and who want to see continued growth, to vote for the Lens."

He stressed that the campaign will be about voting for the Lens or voting for nothing.

"The misinformation and lack of information is a critical point," he said.

A poll by New York-based McLaughlin & Associates in late May showed that 54 percent of respondents favored canceling the Lens contract. In other questions, 47 percent said the inverted pyramid should be repaired. And 62 percent agreed that the "Lens project is a pier to nowhere. It is a $50 million sidewalk."

The Lens' biggest proponent is baffled that the chamber and city now want to educate voters.

Anthony Sullivan, a high-energy TV pitchman and founder of the pro-Lens group, Wow Our Waterfront St. Pete, said he spent "tens of thousands of dollars" to promote the Lens.

Though he has sold millions of products on TV, he was bothered that he couldn't sell the Lens. He realized he was losing two weeks ago after paying for the poll.

Sullivan said he puts part of the blame on the city and chamber, neither of which did much to promote the project.

"There was no real community outreach," he said Friday. "It's hard to walk away from, but I don't see any other option."

Local blogger and political consultant Peter Schorsch switched his support after watching the controversy overtake the mayor's race. He expected residents to support the Lens once the Pier was shuttered. But opinions hardened since the May 31 closing date.

"I didn't see any clear paths to victory," he said.

Polling, politics derailing support for Lens in St. Petersburg 06/21/13 [Last modified: Saturday, June 22, 2013 12:12am]

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