Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Opinion

Nickens column: In pier debate, leaders fold to naysayers

It would be funny if it wasn't so sad.

St. Petersburg City Council member Jeff Danner summed up the folly of trying to design a new pier that can win support from a majority of the voters.

"You're never going to get consensus designed by referendum unless you build some Mediterranean inverted Lens pyramid fishing dock,'' Danner said during Thursday night's council meeting, tying together competing suggestions.

If there had been a voter referendum in Paris, the Eiffel Tower never would have been built. If there had been a voter referendum in St. Louis, the Gateway Arch never would have been built. If there had been a voter referendum in Chicago, the Cloud Gate sculpture dubbed "The Bean'' in Millennium Park never would have been built.

Yet St. Petersburg will have a referendum Aug. 27 on an innovative pier design that has been demonized and misrepresented by its opponents. Frightened by opinion polls indicating overwhelming opposition, city candidates and onetime supporters are running away from the project like it's a house on fire.

It's foolish to try to design grand public projects by voter referendum. Art, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. And popular views can change over time, just as they did with the Eiffel Tower and the Arch.

But there is one thing worse: trying to cancel a referendum at the last minute after voters have gathered enough signatures to trigger one.

Let's assume the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce had the best of intentions when it recommended that the council just cancel the pier contract and move on. Maybe the chamber was even trying to help out Mayor Bill Foster, who embraced the chamber's suggestion only to backtrack when the pier opponents objected.

But it was a terrible idea, badly timed and poorly orchestrated. And it backfired.

Supporters of the referendum effort made it clear at Thursday night's City Council meeting they don't just want the pier contract terminated. They want a vote. They deserve one now, and even the City Council figured that out and unanimously approved a ballot title that will work just fine.

But prospects for the new pier are even dimmer than they were this time last week. The chamber and other supporters have run for cover instead of investing in a campaign to promote it. Foster looks weaker. Kathleen Ford, who is running for mayor a third time and particularly appeals to residents who are always mad about something and against everything, looks stronger. Ford is flat wrong about still trying to save the outdated inverted pyramid, but at least it's clear where she stands.

If what passes for business leadership in St. Petersburg was trying to help Foster, they failed. They energized the city's naysayers and depressed the younger, more optimistic voters. And unless something changes, a low voter turnout on Aug. 27 dominated by pier opponents could dramatically influence the outcome of races for mayor and City Council.

There is more going on here than the fate of the pier, and it's not good. Waving the white flag emboldens the next group of complainers to raise money for a referendum to stop another city ordinance they don't like. It discourages residents like those who worked in the pier process from volunteering for city committees — only to see their efforts dismissed. It turns off developers and visionary architects, who will avoid investing time and money on St. Petersburg projects if they are to be tarred by misinformation, abandoned by supporters and subject to the whims of voters.

What does the pier fiasco say about the ability of St. Petersburg's business and political leaders to build support for next year's transit referendum? How does it inspire confidence in developing any plan for a new stadium that would keep the Tampa Bay Rays in the city?

"We're heading down a road that could lead us to stagnation,'' council member Jim Kennedy said Thursday night.

Whether he was talking about the future of the pier or the future of the city, he's right.

We are two months from the primary election. There is still time for reasonable residents to regroup and for supporters of the pier project to launch a good-faith campaign. The chamber was back on board Friday afternoon, and some council members will help. Voters may well reject the Lens, but there is no harm in embracing a project that has many attributes and was selected through a fair, competitive process.

There could be plenty of harm in giving up — and the damage could be more far-reaching than a fenced-off, dilapidated, inverted pyramid at the end of a pier.

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