Monday, January 22, 2018
Politics

Wengay Newton wants to delay Pier closing

ST. PETERSBURG — Council member Wengay Newton wants to keep the Pier open beyond its scheduled Memorial Day closing date.

It's likely voters will get to weigh in at the polls in August on whether the proposed replacement, called the Lens, should be built, Newton said, so it makes sense to wait. He's asked for that issue to be placed on the council agenda for next week's meeting.

Not so fast, said Mayor Bill Foster.

No matter what happens with efforts to stop the proposed Lens, "I'll still be the mayor" in August, he said.

"The Stop the Lens question will not save the inverted pyramid."

Foster also said that Richard Gonzmart, president of the family-owned Columbia Restaurant Group, which also owns Cha Cha Coconuts, is closing both eateries at the Pier on May 31.

"This is our anchor tenant," Foster said. "He's closing."

Newton then offered his own declaration about the Aug. 27 primary election, where Foster will be on the ballot for re-election. "I'm going to turn 50 that day by the grace of God, and the people will be voting. "

Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, a fierce opponent of the Lens, says it has enough petitions to force a ballot referendum. The group expects to have the signatures verified in the coming weeks. It also has money.

The pro-Lens effort, WOW Our Waterfront St. Pete, formed a political action committee Thursday so it can accept donations to counter messages from Concerned Citizens.

TV pitchman Anthony Sullivan, a St. Petersburg resident who heads the WowStPete group, said the switch is needed in case the issue goes before voters.

"We need to be in a better position," Sullivan said. "We can't operate anymore as a private company."

He stressed that the group isn't only about collecting money. He said they'll also inform residents why the Lens should be built and how it can help the waterfront grow.

"My goal is to get an educated conversation started," Sullivan said.

Both groups count supporters among the powerhouses of political and social circles in the city.

WowStPete hasn't raised money yet and has a ways to go before it reaches Concerned Citizens, which raised $99,411 in the first quarter.

But 70 percent of that — $69,000 — came from one of the group's leaders, Bud Risser, or firms connected to him, records show.

He loaned the group $40,000 and also paid $16,000 for political advertisements. Two businesses where Risser is listed as an officer contributed $13,000, records show.

The largest donations came from businessmen James MacDougald, who gave $10,000, and Bill Hough, who gave $5,000.

WowStPete says it isn't deterred.

The group says some of its biggest supporters include Mindy Grossman, chief executive officer of the Home Shopping Network; Rhonda Shear of Shear Enterprises and creator of the "Ahh Bra"; and Steve Westphal, owner of Parkshore Grill and 400 Beach Seafood & Tap House on Beach Drive.

Mark Puente can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.

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