Thursday, December 14, 2017

St. Petersburg residents deserve to be heard on fate of the Pier

For elected officials, nonsense is an occupational hazard.

Nonsense emails. Nonsense residents. Hard as it is to believe, even nonsense columnists.

The gifted politician learns to sift through this. To correct it when possible and ignore it when inevitable. Most importantly, to recognize when nonsense graduates to substance.

Which brings us to the Pier in St. Petersburg.

There has been a tremendous amount of needless whining, carping and finger-pointing on this issue in recent years. Lots of bad information and tons of misguided sentimentality.

But through it all, there is a growing vibe that the Lens concept has not been well-received by a significant portion of the population.

And it's time for the City Council to recognize that.

Council members could argue that no design will ever have universal acceptance, and that is absolutely true.

They could argue the city has already invested countless hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars, and that is also true.

They could even argue that they have no legal obligation to bring this issue to a ballot, and that is technically true.

But in the end, people deserve to be heard.

Because, while I acknowledge this process has been completely open and painfully slow-moving, I also think it has somehow crept up on a lot of people.

Folks never grasped that the combination of a deteriorating Pier, a bunch of nebulous concepts and some strict financial restraints would evolve into a here's-the-best-we've-got result.

And that's why city leaders should consider this alternative:

Instead of a binding referendum, turn it into an advisory vote. The City Council would retain final say but would also have a clearer picture of what residents want.

The ballot could include a handful of options (a. build the Lens, b. build an attraction on waterfront land with a smaller ceremonial pier, c. knock down the Pier and continue studying potential replacements) with the financial implications included.

It would also give the City Council a final chance to hammer home the reality that the current Pier has to come down.

Not only would it cost too much to renovate (up to $90 million), but it draws fewer visitors (half of what it was getting 10 years ago) and is a drain on the city budget (about $10 million during the past seven years).

The simple truth is, it would be financial folly to pour that much money into a concept that no longer seems viable.

So does that mean a largely ornamental pier such as the Lens makes more sense? Does it mean the city should give up on the expense of building above water, and instead build a grander attraction on the waterfront?

Those are questions an advisory vote could answer.

"Frankly, the process has to slow down to see if there is a way to amend the Lens plan into something that people will accept,'' council member Karl Nurse said. "Since we are one year from beginning to tear down the Pier, I do not think a several-month delay in a plan will have a significant negative impact.

"It is going to be there for 50 years or so; several months should not matter.''

There may or may not be a better solution out there.

And residents deserve a say in that decision.

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