The St. Petersburg City Council's least worry today is writing the title for the August ballot initiative that would kill the ambitious plan for a new pier. There are several workable options, and those 15 words won't decide the fate of the project. The real issue is the failure of public officials and private supporters to create a campaign to educate voters and vigorously respond to well-funded opponents who are driving the debate, often with misinformation. Voters deserve better before they decide whether to embrace a well-vetted project or kill it and leave St. Petersburg stuck with a closed pier and an uncertain way forward.
Outgoing council member Jeff Danner, a strong supporter of the project, suggested this week that the solution is a public information campaign out of City Hall. His frustration is understandable, but the better solution is a private campaign. Unfortunately, a private group of supporters, WOW Our Waterfront, has failed so far to raise the money needed to launch a major effort.
Then there is the disappointing retreat of Mayor Bill Foster, whose administration has overseen the entire pier design selection process. With his re-election on the line, Foster hedged his bets last week by announcing he is creating a committee to consider what's next after the August primary. His announcement came as mayoral candidate Rick Kriseman announced he opposes the project and would create a similar pier committee if he is elected. And mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford wants to save the rundown inverted pyramid, which is not a viable option. So now none of the three major candidates for mayor is forcefully advocating for an innovative new pier design that is the product of thousands of citizens' input and millions in taxpayer investment.
More helpful is that six of eight council members, despite considerable pressure from opponents, still support the new pier plan as the best solution to a complex problem. They recognize it is financially indefensible to reopen the closed inverted pyramid, with its exorbitant taxpayer subsidies and list of needed repairs that far exceed the $50 million set aside for the project.
Supporters also know the proposed pier is far more than the "sidewalk to nowhere" that the Stop the Lens group claims. There would be restaurants, fishing, boating, trolleys, shaded public spaces and an over-water amphitheater suitable for everything from weddings to concerts to classes. Multiple balconies off the project's so-called tiara would give stunning views both east toward Tampa and west toward downtown St. Petersburg. The annual operating subsidy would be roughly half of what the pyramid has been costing city taxpayers.
The project would be built if voters in August reject the Stop the Lens ballot measure. If they support it, no one knows what the future holds. Mayoral candidates can make promises, but new committees and more plans for a new pier could mean years of delays. The existing pier could wind up closed and fenced off for years like the Vinoy hotel once was, an empty eyesore. Supporters of the new pier design should step up so voters understand the real choice is between a thoughtful solution ready to be built and a gamble that something better might arise for the same cost.
Fifteen words on the ballot won't kill the investment of years of public debate and millions in public money devoted to creating an iconic pier on St. Petersburg's waterfront. What will is inertia from supporters and an information vacuum filled by deep-pocketed opponents rooted in the city's past rather than its future.