The St. Petersburg City Council took a prudent fiscal and political step this week by scaling back spending on preparations for a new pier in anticipation that opponents will likely succeed in forcing a referendum on killing the project. Now supporters of the New St. Petersburg Pier need to go on the offense. They need to be just as aggressive in spreading accurate information on the project's design as some opponents have been at spreading misinformation or conjecture. If voters are to decide the future of the city's centurylong pier tradition in the Aug. 27 primary election, they need information about the actual options, not just what detractors say they are.
Thursday's 5-3 vote by the council to spend $869,000 is roughly 60 percent of the $1.5 million that would have kept the project 100 percent on track with preconstruction efforts. But heeding opponents' admonishments to not waste more money on a project that voters may reject, the council whittled the spending to specific tasks, including funding wind testing to address one of the critics' frequently repeated but unsubstantiated claims: that the new pier structure will be unsafe.
The council decision came a day after organizers of the Stop the Lens campaign finally made good on their threats to submit enough petitions to qualify for a referendum. The city clerk has roughly two weeks to confirm the validity of the petitions.
Even as the ballot became more assured on Thursday, six of the eight council members reiterated their support for the plan, and Mayor Bill Foster made the most succinct argument in months about why it was necessary to close the deteriorating inverted pyramid and move forward with a new project. Charlie Gerdes, who joined Karl Nurse and Wengay Newton in opposing the plan to spend $869,000, said it wasn't because his support for the new pier had softened, just that he felt the city could spend less in the interim.
All this came against the backdrop of another contentious public forum in which opponents of the plan cast criticism far and wide, with many urging the city to keep the inverted pyramid open until after the referendum instead of closing it at the end of May in preparation for demolition.
But as Foster pointed out, that would mean taxpayers would fork over another $400,000 in operating subsidy for three months, money that has not been budgeted, and would only delay the inevitable need to tear down a structure that would cost an estimated $70 million to renovate. That is $20 million more than the $50 million that has been set aside for both demolishing the old pier and building the new pier that is expected to require half the operating subsidy of the pyramid and have at least a 50-year life-span.
Voters in August won't be deciding to save the inverted pyramid. It will already be shuttered with demolition imminent and no financially defensible reason to save it. Voters can vote to kill the plan for a new pier but without any certainty of what will come next — including the potential for years of stalemate as each new pier effort fails to appease another vocal minority. Or voters can reject the Stop the Lens measure and embrace an innovative design that has continued to evolve over the past year with input from thousands of citizens and a team of experts and shows significant potential.