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Jumbo Columbus' sculptor eyes St. Petersburg skyline

(ran NS S editions of TAMPA BAY & STATE)

Zurab Tsereteli paused on the balcony of his Stouffer Vinoy hotel suite and, beaming, peered toward downtown.

"Here," he said, pointing to the water between The Pier and the Stouffer Renaissance Vinoy Resort marina. "I would put it here, right here on the water."

It is a 416-feet-tall bronze statue of Christopher Columbus that for three years has been looking for a home. What was supposed to be a gesture of good will from the former Soviet Union to America has instead become a monolithic magnet for controversy.

Now, Tsereteli's colossal creation _ taller than St. Petersburg's Barnett Tower _ has its eyes on St. Petersburg's skyline. No one in the Tampa Bay area is expressing much interest in the monument, but it's getting attention nonetheless.

"Robo-Columbus is what I call it," said state American Indian movement director Sheridan Murphy. "We'll do whatever we have to to prevent this monument to racism from being erected in St. Petersburg. He should have used his talents in a much better way than to embalm in bronze a racist."

When Tsereteli dreamed up his mega statue five years ago, he could not have foreseen it would be viewed by so many as 500 tons of political incorrectness. The Georgian sculptor and entrepreneur says he merely wanted to do something big _ really big _ to mark the end of the Cold War. The 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' voyage to the New World struck him as a perfect symbol.

The Soviet government liked the idea, and state foundries started casting. Presidents Bush and Clinton have seen the plans and expressed appreciation for the gift, dubbed Birth of the New World.

But where to put it?

Tsereteli has looked at New York, South Florida and Columbus, Ohio, and on Friday scouted out St. Petersburg. His gesture has met with publicity about outraged neighbors, about historical inaccuracies (Columbus hand rests on a steering wheel, not invented at the time of his voyage), and about the potential multimillion-dollar expense of erecting something taller than the Statue of Liberty.

Even aside from the prickly issue of Columbus' background as a slave trader and conqueror of indigenous people, there are questions of aesthetics. It's just so . . . huge.

"Nobody wants to be responsible for scaring children for 20 miles in either direction," a Columbus (Ohio) Chamber of Commerce official told the Columbus Dispatch nearly three years ago.

If Tsereteli is miffed by such descriptions of his work as "Chris Kong," he wasn't showing it Friday.

Speaking through an interpreter, Irina Baranova, Tsereteli was more interested in showing off a book with pictures of the artist and assorted dignitaries and celebrities. "That is Mrs. Thatcher. . . . There is James Baker. A good friend. . . . This is Yeltsin toasting Tsereteli. . . . That is DeNiro, the actor."

He suggested the location for Birth of the New World ultimately will be decided by how he feels about a community, as well as interest from residents. He cheerfully brushed aside talk about his troubles finding a location.

Never mind that Miami Beach officials voted against erecting the statue in 1993. Those were preliminary discussions, he said, before all the proper resolutions and proclamations had been approved in the former Soviet Union.

Tsereteli's work is on display everywhere from Seville, Spain, to the United Nations in New York. He stands to make money off licensing rights for T-shirts, replicas and other merchandise.

The statue's 1,500 parts are split between America and St. Petersburg, Russia. Tsereteli said it cost about $22-million to build and estimated it would cost "five or six" million to erect it by downtown St. Petersburg. Other communities have put the cost at closer to $20-million.

The artist has teamed up with promoter Craig Van Pelt of St. Petersburg to look for locations. Van Pelt said he expects most of the cost of erection would be borne by private investors, though a local government might provide the land, property tax abatement or other incentives.

"It's a project that whether you like it or not will have a great public interest, pro and con, and great economic impact," Van Pelt said of the statue, whose interior would include elevators, a lookout area, perhaps even a movie screen.

So far, though, no one in St. Petersburg or anywhere else in the bay area is expressing any enthusiasm. Mayor David Fischer was out of town when news hit of Tsereteli's statue last week, and on Tuesday he politely dismissed the idea outright.

"It's obviously too large. It's just massive," Fischer said, suggesting that anywhere near the water downtown would be difficult because of Albert Whitted Airport. "We don't have space to even consider it."

The journey of Tsereteli and his jumbo Columbus continues.

"For me, what is most important," Tsereteli said, "is where my gift and my work will be loved."

_ Staff researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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