Now that St. Petersburg officials have voted to tear down the Pier on the downtown bayfront and build a new one, attention is turning to how to make the new pier and the area around it a destination for both tourists and residents. Officials have said they want the new pier to be a family-friendly attraction and a place locals will visit regularly instead of just when they are entertaining out-of-town guests.
If it's regular crowds they want, St. Petersburg officials should look north to Clearwater Beach, which hit on a formula for attracting visitors to its pier that has been successful for 15 years. And Clearwater doesn't have to spend any property tax dollars to make it work.
"Sunsets at Pier 60" is a nightly festival held on and around Pier 60, Clearwater Beach's public pier. Modeled after Key West's popular sunset festivals, it originally was held four nights a week but after three years expanded to seven nights. The festival has grown steadily in recent years. Even a slow weeknight will attract hundreds of visitors, and on weekends the venue is jammed with up to several thousand people enjoying mostly free entertainment.
While its beachfront location and view of the Gulf of Mexico are definite attractors, another reason for the festival's success may be the mix of entertainment offered.
Vendors selling craft items such as jewelry, photographs, paintings and candles line both sides of Pier 60 out to the pier's midpoint store, where the serious fishing pier starts. A steady stream of shoppers and gawkers wanders past the vendors' temporary booths.
On the land side near the pier entrance, street performers — sword swallowers, fire breathers, escape artists — roam the crowds providing impromptu entertainment. Bands perform nightly in an open-air pavilion. People line up for turns on a bungee trampoline apparatus or for trips down a tall water slide. A big inflatable movie screen is set up in a grassy area where people can flop down and watch a family-friendly movie after dark on Fridays and Saturdays. A concession stand stays busy turning out food and drinks, including popcorn for the moviegoers.
In the mid 1990s the city built a covered children's playground near the entrance to the pier. Though critics said no one would use the playground because the beach is a stone's throw away, children flock there during the day to escape the sun and romp on the equipment during the sunset festival.
The festival starts two hours before sunset and ends two hours after, with the moment of sunset often celebrated by applause. Though the venue may be crowded, the mood is laid back. People of all ages come to watch the sunset, buy a souvenir, enjoy the warm air and listen to the sweet sounds of beach music carried on the sea breeze.
But with deep cutbacks in local government budgets, especially for recreation, how does Clearwater city government operate a daily festival? The answer: It doesn't. Since it began in March 1995, the festival has been organized and operated by a local nonprofit, the Sunsets at Pier 60 Society. The group has one paid staff member and a volunteer board of directors. It manages the vendors and entertainers, conducts jury reviews for new craftsmen who want to sell their works on the pier, books the bands and makes sure the festival goes off smoothly and safely every night. It collects fees from the vendors and entertainers and plows the money back into the festival.
The city allows the use of the public land and provides $20,000 to help pay for bringing in live bands. But the contribution isn't from property tax revenue. It is money the city collects from the bungee trampoline attraction and cycles back into the festival.
Clearwater's parks and recreation director, Kevin Dunbar, is among those a little surprised and plenty excited by how long the festival has sustained itself. "It's a magnet the way it draws people to the area," he said.
For the next year, St. Petersburg officials and residents will do a lot of thinking and talking about the new pier. They say they want it to be iconic, as the existing Pier and its inverted pyramid building have been. But they also want it to be a lively place that keeps tourists and residents coming back. They might pick up some good ideas if they visit Clearwater Beach around sunset.
Diane Steinle is editor of editorials for the North Pinellas editions of the St. Petersburg Times.