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To justify St. Petersburg Pier payout, bold ideas must emerge

Only something like a Cheesecake Factory, Bonefish, Outback, roomy Starbucks or dynamic bookstore will draw residents to the Pier.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Only something like a Cheesecake Factory, Bonefish, Outback, roomy Starbucks or dynamic bookstore will draw residents to the Pier.

As the city prepares to host yet another community forum to explore alternatives for a new Pier, I have one simple question: Haven't we been down this road before?

Way back in 1972, when the city was seeking a name for the waterfront icon, one tongue-in-cheek suggestion was "La Costa Lotta."

At the time, the upside-down pyramid cost a whopping $4 million to construct. That was nearly double the architect's original estimate.

Isn't it funny how that name rings true today? Let's go down memory lane to see how much has been spent on the Pier in recent decades.

In 1978 the city awarded a $1.35 million contract for the repairs to H.G. Harders & Son of Panama City, Fla.

In 1986 the facility closed for renovations and reopened after a $12.5 million facelift.

In 2006, city officials announced plans for $50 million in tax increment financing for the Pier's restoration.

Fast forward to 2009. The city entered an agreement with Bermello Ajamil & Partners for $143,000 to develop activities and cost estimates for reconstruction or replacement options at the Pier.

In March, a 20-member task force was hand-picked by former Mayor Rick Baker and the City Council.

The group has had a series of meetings since April. The panel also divided into four subcommittees that focused on design, finance, economic impact, and land use and environmental.

It costs the city and county about $2.1 million a year to run the facility, according to a 2000 study by the Klages Group.

After all this time and money, one has to ask the taxpayers: When was the last time you went to the Pier without having visiting friends and relatives in tow?

Don't get me wrong. There have been some wonderful events there. And Urban Retail management has come up with creative ways of drawing locals there.

But for years, the facility has been like a listing ship on a cruise to nowhere.

In October, more than 198 residents danced along the Pier approach, as hundreds of others watched the choreographed performance to the late Michael Jackson's Thriller for Thrill St. Pete. It was great!

Alas, but like an aging disco queen with bad knees — she is 83 years old, you know — it just might be time for her friends (the task force) to pull her aside and say, ''Girl, it's time.''

Months ago Randy Wedding, chairman of the task force, said the Pier's pilings were on its last legs. The approach is too fragile for the weight of the city's garbage trucks, so current tenants have to take their garbage in smaller trucks to trash bins at the end of the Pier, according to minutes of the task force meeting.

What currently drives locals to the Pier has more to do with what's outside the iconic structure, not the shops inside. I would bet that there are few residents who go to the Pier to make a purchase from a shop that offers a "must-have" item exclusively available there.

My visit on Friday — for research — revealed that most people there were tourists. Few were inside, save for a small crowd gathered at the unmanned concierge desk to collect fliers to other attractions, or to wait on the elevators to the Pier Aquarium.

Oddly enough, on this particular day, there were just as many "visitors" at Williams Park as there were at the Pier.

Unless the Advisory Task Force offers up something fresh like Cheesecake Factory, Bonefish, Outback, a Starbucks with ample seating and free WiFi, or a bookstore with book signings and author chats, the Pier will remain the place where tourists and new residents go to buy sunglasses, hot sauce and postcards. Oh, and let's not forget, to feed the pelicans.

If not, I can think of a recently devastated island nation the size of Maryland just south of here that could really use the money.

Times researcher Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report. Sandra J. Gadsden is editor of Neighborhood Times. She can be reached at (727) 893-8874 or sgadsden@sptimes.com.

FAST FACTS

Tuesday's forum is at 7 p.m. at the Coliseum at 535 Fourth Ave. N. A second forum is scheduled for 7 p.m. Feb. 2 at the Enoch Davis Center at 1111 18th Ave. S.

To justify St. Petersburg Pier payout, bold ideas must emerge 01/16/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 15, 2010 6:19pm]

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