Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Politics

The battle over St. Petersburg's Pier, in boxing terms

If only it was a real fight. Then maybe this Pier vs. Lens thing would have been decided by now. Petitions wouldn't have mattered, and an upcoming court case wouldn't be necessary.

If only the judges sat in ringside seats. The results could be recorded round by round, and the scoring could be similar to the 10-point system made famous in boxing.

Then maybe we would tune in long enough to actually choose sides between the city and the gadflies.

Round 1 (March 2006)

Two studies commissioned by the city determine the pilings on the Pier have deteriorated beyond a reasonable cost of repair. Discussions begin to heat up about solutions.

"The most important piece of the puzzle and the most important question is what does the community want,'' then-council member Rick Kriseman said.

Judge's score: 10-9 for the gadflies.

Round 2 (March 2009)

The finances do not look good. The Pier costs the city roughly $1.5 million in subsidies every year, and the number of visitors is free-falling. Two times in a matter of months, the mayor asked the council to reduce rent for vendors going broke.

Studies suggest it will cost tens of millions just to renovate the existing Pier without making any substantial improvements.

"In the private sector, nobody would spend $50 million with an operating subsidy (on top of) that,'' City Council member Karl Nurse said. "Nobody in their right mind would build it. Except the government.''

Judge's score: 10-8 for the city.

Round 3 (March 2009)

Then-Mayor Rick Baker forms a 20-person task force to determine the Pier's fate, and decide how to spend $50 million previously earmarked for capital improvements. This move conveniently means the decision will be made after Baker has left office.

Shrewd move. Baker always was the smartest guy in the room.

Judge's score: 10-9 for the city.

Round 4 (June 2009)

A poll sponsored by the then-St. Petersburg Times reveals 52 percent of residents would prefer to keep the Pier open, even if the city must spend $1.5 million annually to subsidize it.

Considering the poll had a 4 percent margin of error, the results are inconclusive.

Judge's score: 10-10.

Round 5 (July 2010)

Mayor Bill Foster says the cost of building something substantial above the water far exceeds what St. Petersburg can afford. He suggests focusing on the shore land.

Council and task force members disagree and persuade Foster to change his mind.

In hindsight, Foster's initial thinking was absolutely correct.

Judge's score: 10-8 for the gadflies.

Round 6 (August 2010)

The council votes 5-3 in a straw poll to proceed with the demolition of the Pier. Reaction is mixed. Even some council members who voted in favor of demolition are not enthusiastic.

Still, the evidence suggests it is the economically prudent decision.

Judge's score: 10-9 for the city.

Round 7 (August 2010)

Task force members say a new Pier needs to be a destination spot. Something that will bring people again and again. They say restaurants and entertainment are the best bets.

"This thing needs to start at Bayshore Drive and end at the Pier,'' said former mayor and task force member Randy Wedding. "If it doesn't, it will continue to be what it is now: A long wasteland that doesn't go anywhere.''

Which is exactly what the original version of the Lens looks like.

Judge's score: 10-9 for the gadflies.

Round 8 (November 2010)

The city spends more than $400,000 to get some preliminary ideas for Pier designs from a Miami firm. Foster tells the firm's representative to "blow us away.''

Judge's score: 10-9 for the gadflies.

Round 9 (January 2012)

The architectural competition concludes with the task force choosing the Lens design, which is later approved by the City Council.

It is an artful, circular walkway above the water, with flexibility to build more on the land in the future. The Lens itself, however, will eat up all of the city's budget for waterfront construction.

The reviews are mixed, at best.

Judge's score: 10-9 for the gadflies.

Round 10 (June 2012)

The city says proposals to save the Pier are not realistic. Fixing the pilings and doing minimal upgrades to the inverted building would cost $70 million to $80 million.

Pier supporters disagree, saying renovations could be done for the same $50 million proposed for the Lens.

Whichever figure you choose to believe, it is still an outrageous and foolhardy cost to renovate an existing attraction that has seen steadily declining attendance.

Judge's score: 10-8 for the city.

And the winner is …

A 94-94 split decision.

In the end, neither side came close to a knockout.

The gadflies are absolutely wrong about the wisdom of investing so much money in a structure that is no longer an attraction to either locals or tourists.

And the city's idea to spend $50 million for something that is largely ornamental without more concrete plans for shore features is also faulty.

A rematch isn't necessary.

What this fight needs is a new contender.

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