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Memories of a former pier inspire dreams

From residents and tourists alike, fond recollections of the old pier still fill the mayor's ears.

Those were the days. It's a shame the hurricane knocked it down. I used to fish there all the time. The kids could play there.

He hears it almost every day _ and finally, Bob DiNicola has decided to ask the question: Why not rebuild the Big Indian Rocks Beach Pier?

"Everyone I've talked to is just delighted that we're even talking about it," said DiNicola. "I haven't heard one negative response."

So he's making phone calls, schmoozing with federal, state and local coastal watchdogs, starting a petition drive, and hoping to resurrect what was once the longest pier in Florida, jutting 1,040 feet into the Gulf of Mexico from the beach at 13th Avenue and Gulf Boulevard.

There's one problem, of course.

"The money, I don't have," DiNicola acknowledged.

Okay, maybe two or three problems.

"Just getting the permits would be a milestone," he said.

But he's off and running.

"We're always talking in Florida about the economy, and about tourists not having anything to do," he said. "That was a huge tourist attraction."

The pier was knocked down by Hurricane Elena in 1985. The original site won't do this time around. The commission in 1991 decided it couldn't afford the $1.2-million owners were asking.

Instead, DiNicola hopes to persuade the county to allow it off its beach access area under construction at 17th Avenue and Gulf Boulevard.

"We would most certainly work with the city on something like that," said County Administrator Fred Marquis. "The parking is already there, and personally, I would think if the city wants to do a joint project to redo the pier, we could work with them on it."

That's the kind of response that has set DiNicola in motion. It's been more of the same from nearby businesses.

"I think it would be a great idea," said Linda Labrador, an owner of the nearby Keegan's Seafood Grille. And she's not just speaking as a businesswoman. "I used to have a lot of friends who fished at the old pier."

And she has a son. "Fishing is a good hobby for kids to get involved with. It keeps them off the street, keeps them doing something constructive."

Dominique Conn, manager of Guppy's restaurant across the street from the county park, also approved. And Marian Wilson, owner of the St. Tropez Villas, supports the pro-tourism argument.

"From what I've heard, it got a lot of use," said Wilson, who arrived in Florida shortly after Elena swallowed the pier. "I think anything that boosts the tourism industry is going to help us."

But she also points to Pier 60 in Clearwater, an existing structure that cost $2-million to upgrade last year. "It's going to cost mega-bucks. I don't know how he's going to afford this one."

DiNicola isn't worried about money. Yet.

During his campaign for mayor, he brought up the idea but said he didn't want to spend city money on it. He and city manager Eric Meserve said that if the plan got that far, state grants are available for recreational amenities.

But DiNicola is convinced it can be built privately.

"If we can get the permits, I'm sure I can get somebody to build it," he said. "Ray Snelling made a damn good living off that (the original pier)."

Snelling's father, Louis, was a co-developer of the pier in 1959. It had a bait and tackle shop, restrooms, snack bar and weigh station for fishing tournaments. Pedestrians would pay 50 cents to stroll the length of the pier, anglers a few dollars.

Like his constituents, DiNicola gets sentimental about the old fixture.

"The pier has a long history. My son would go down there on a Friday night. Once he went down there on the pier, it was like somebody was babysitting."

He recalls arising in the wee hours with no sign of his son or his friends in the house, and walking down to the pier. "They were still there. The old-timers looked out for the young kids."

DiNicola acknowledged that the pier may never be built during his term of office.

"I may be spinning my wheels," he said. "But if I don't try, I'd regret it."