By Will Michaels, Special to the Times
The new pier working group is focused on recommending functions for a new pier. One of the best functions suggested by the original Pier Task Force was consideration of a marine discovery center.
The Pier has served as St. Petersburg's principal architectural symbol since the "Million Dollar Pier" was built in 1926, followed by the inverted pyramid. Ideally, the new pier will reflect our city's uniqueness and special sense of place. The first Pier Task Force's vision for a new pier stated that the "architecture of the main building should reflect our history and unique identity as a City" and be "a worthy symbol of our great City." This is not only true of its architecture but also its function. The task force in particular noted that a new pier should "speak to our city's beautiful aquatic setting." St. Petersburg has long been known as the "Sunshine City," and our new mayor has re-emphasized that through the mantra, "The Sun Shines Here." Historically, it was St. Pete's sunny climate and surrounding rich aquatic beauty and resources that played a big role in making our city so special. Dr. W.C. Van Bibber may have gone a little too far in virtually declaring the Pinellas peninsula the healthiest climate in the world back in 1885, but he and other early city leaders were pivotal in moving St. Petersburg in the direction of both a world-class destination for tourists and a great place to live that lasts to this day.
None of this would have been possible except for our geographic setting on a peninsula between the gulf and Tampa Bay, with their rich marine biodiversity. Tampa Bay is our state's largest estuary. While at times in our history we have not fully appreciated the blessings of our unique community, over the years we have come to better understand the fragility of our special ecosystem, and the safeguarding of this ecosystem is a now widely shared value.
The recent task force survey soliciting public input regarding new pier functions defined a marine discovery center as "a marine education center similar to Great Explorations Children's Museum." While this comparison conveys the excitement intended in the idea of a marine discovery center, their features are much different. Great Explorations is an exciting children's interactive museum but it is not a marine exploration center. And while it includes parents in some activities, it primarily engages children. A marine discovery center would engage both children and adults. Nevertheless, the "hands-on" interactive methods expertise of Great Explorations in planning the discovery center would be invaluable.
A rich variety of marine discovery centers may be found throughout the globe. Each configures its program and architectural requirements to the special characteristics of its location. Should the current task force agree that a marine discovery center would be a possible function for a new pier, logically the bidding design teams would collaborate with our marine and education community to design a structure that would uniquely fit our city. Possible elements might include a modest specialized aquarium and touch tank designed to help tell the special marine story of our community. This may be combined with a children's water park and accommodations for fishing. Demolished elements of the old pier could be used to construct artificial reefs. Programming could be geared to support marine science teaching units in area schools and support field trips.
Ideally, a marine discovery center would be a public-private partnership with the much celebrated St. Petersburg marine science economy. The nearby Bayboro Harbor Marine Science District is the largest marine science group in the Southeast. It includes SRI (formerly Stanford Research Institute); the Marine Technology Research Center; the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); the NOAA Fisheries Service Southeast Regional Office; and the University of South Florida College of Marine Science. Other possible partners include the Eckerd College Marine Science Program, Tampa Bay Watch and Cousteau Divers USA. Additionally, there are the resources of the former successful Pier Aquarium and its successor, the Secrets of the Sea Marine Exploration Center. Also, the internationally renowned Blue Ocean Film Festival and Conservation Summit is relocating from Monterey, Calif., to St. Petersburg later this year. A distinctive part of a discovery center in St. Petersburg could include featuring examples of the real-time research and discoveries of these organizations.
Few if any other cities have such an abundance of community expertise available to help plan and assist in the operation of a marine discovery center unique to our city's sense of place.
Will Michaels served as chairman of the Design Committee of the first Pier Task Force. He was formerly executive director and trustee of the St. Petersburg Museum of History.