Whether the Pier is embraced as an iconic St. Petersburg symbol or derided as an outdated reminder of the past, there are some difficult questions to be answered about the future of the aging pier approach and the inverted pyramid. The trick will be balancing historic significance with economic reality, and all options should be explored.
A 20-member task force will study possibilities for the Pier's future and make recommendations. The group has until early next year to suggest how to spend $50 million that has been designated by the city and county to rebuild and refurbish the Pier's infrastructure starting in 2012. An engineering study determined that the Pier's approach and base must be rebuilt, and any changes or expansion to the Pier building would be an additional cost.
The Pier's problems go beyond its crumbling infrastructure. This year the city will subsidize its operations by $1.6 million, after slashing rents for its struggling tenants by $140,000. This is nothing new. Even with the use of a private management group — one that doesn't seem to be earning its annual $165,859 in management fees — the city has had to sink an average of $1.4 million into the Pier every year. Yet in 2007 there were nearly a million fewer visitors than five years earlier. What was once an attraction for residents and visitors alike is primarily a draw for tourists.
The questions might not be so pressing if it were only a matter of subsidizing the Pier the way the city does other cultural venues and amenities such as the Mahaffey Theater. But an investment of $50 million has to be done wisely with an eye toward fiscal responsibility, history and quality of life. The Pier holds an important place in the city's history and identity, yet its significance has decreased as the downtown area has become a richer environment with improved museums, Major League Baseball and private development.
For the task force to succeed it must avoid individual agendas or prejudgments. Every possible option — from demolition to renovation to complete alteration and everything in between — should be evaluated. It is difficult to imagine St. Petersburg's downtown waterfront without the Pier, but this analysis needs to be methodical, serious and thorough.
The Pier is a signature structure and a calling card for St. Petersburg. In one form or another it has stood for more than 80 years. But the city is a far different place than it was in 1973, when the inverted pyramid was built. The deteriorating infrastructure will force a decision on whether it remains a valued landmark or a tired, outdated relic — and what to do if it's really the latter.