St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster has failed for three years to deliver on the next pier. Now, just days before the city election, he is pushing an ill-conceived new scheme that wastes taxpayer dollars, contradicts city policy and could further divide the city. The City Council should insist the mayor shelve his plan for a $20,000 public opinion poll until at least after the Nov. 5 mayoral and council elections.
Foster's plan for moving forward on the pier comes nearly two months after voters rejected the Lens, the winner of the international design competition that he failed to sell to the public. The mayor's first step: Pay for a 20-question scientific survey by telephone of up to 1,000 residents about the pier's future. That is basically what the citizen Pier Advisory Task Force did in 60 public meetings in 2009-10. But most troublesome, Foster plans to ask residents about their views on keeping the dilapidated 1973 inverted pyramid. And he said the city is not moving forward with demolition of the structure.
The mayor should review city policy. With Foster's encouragement, the City Council voted in 2010 to demolish the inverted pyramid rather than refurbish or rebuild its crumbling, 90-year-old bridge. The council has not wavered on that decision, for good reason. The inverted pyramid, with its oddly shaped interior space, never reached its potential. When it closed in May, taxpayers were subsidizing operations to the tune of $1.4 million annually, including subsidizing retailers' rents. Over nearly a decade, various consultants estimated that replacing the pier bridge and improving the building would take at least $70 million. That would far exceed the $50 million the city and county set aside for a new pier project. And now the city has just $46 million to cover demolition and construction of a new pier after the Lens debacle.
Foster says the survey question would be worded to reflect how extraordinarily expensive rehabilitating the inverted pyramid would be — apparently hoping supporters would finally realize the cost exceeds the merits of saving a structure that never really worked. But that's a reckless move from a mayor who has failed to convince some pier supporters by using the same information. Suggesting that saving the pier is an option — however far-flung — is irresponsible and will only further divide the city over the path forward.
City Council members should not stand by quietly. They should stop this waste of money that could backfire if the poll questions are poorly worded or if the results suggest a direction that is not financially viable. The city election is less than two weeks away. The next mayor and the next City Council may have a better idea about how to proceed toward a new pier — and the next mayor might not be the incumbent.