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Pier restaurant site attracts pitches from local group and Fort Myers-area chain

ST. PETERSBURG — As the pilings go in for the new pier, behind the scenes other developments are taking place in the buildup to its newly projected opening day in April 2019.

For now, two successful restaurant groups are vying for one coveted spot in the $76 million Pier District. The prime waterside site, in a former parking lot, is adjacent to 25 public boat slips and parking.

Doc Ford's Rum Bar & Grille, a popular Sanibel Island restaurant, with locations on Captiva Island and Fort Myers Beach, envisions St. Petersburg as its next location.

Competing for the site on the southern vista of the pier approach is local restaurateur Steve Westphal, owner of Parkshore Grill and 400 Beach Seafood & Tap House.

Doc Ford's proposal is not surprising, given Mayor Rick Kriseman's scouting of the restaurant famed for its tie-in with bestselling author Randy Wayne White.

Westphal, however, was among those along Beach Drive who objected to the city's plans for three restaurants in the Pier District. They said it would be detrimental to their businesses. The city has dropped one restaurant.

Westphal explained his change of heart this way: "Well, if you can't beat them, join them.

"With the knowledge and experience that we have, we can do the best job going forward and represent the area and the community and what it asked for," he said.

Doc Ford's has long been interested in coming to St. Petersburg, said Mark Marinello, a partner in the restaurant. (White is another partner and the restaurants are named after the main character in a number of his novels.)

Kriseman, who wants to make the Pier District a "world-class" destination, is apparently interested in adding a Doc Ford's.

"When the pier first started to get some traction, the mayor's office reached out to us," Marinello said. "As the ground-breaking got closer, the interaction increased. He actually came down and saw us with his team."

This week, Marinello spoke of being "pretty excited" to be part of the city's vision for the new pier.

While the city has hired Colliers International to manage and operate the Pier District and handle leases, the mayor will make the decision about which restaurants get the potentially lucrative Pier District leases for the former parking lot and the pier head. The mayor's decisions, though, are subject to the approval of the City Council.

For now, the city has two serious proposals. Doc Ford's plans a 250-plus-seat, 10,000-square-foot restaurant, of which 4,000 square feet will be air-conditioned. The remainder will be covered, open-air seating. Each Doc Ford's employs an average of 104 people.

The menu at the St. Petersburg location will be similar to its other restaurants and will feature the traditional "Old Florida" decor, Marinello said.

Doc Ford's proposal includes a list of its charitable donations. It gives a dollar from certain drinks to the Golisano Children's Hospital of Southwest Florida. It says it will do the same for Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital.

Westphal's proposal states that he and executive chef Tyson Grant strive "to find ways to give back and be of service."

Westphal, who also owns the Hangar Restaurant & Flight Lounge, Cafe Gala at the Dalí Museum and the newly opened Annex at 400 Beach, sold the Pub Waterfront Restaurant on Indian Shores this year. The purpose of the sale was to be able to focus on his downtown restaurants and "the possible pier waterfront opportunities," Westphal said.

"We are the local guys,'' he said. "I've got four restaurants here, all different brands. We have over 300 employees. They are ready to deploy. The money that we make and earn, we put back into the community."

Westphal is proposing a restaurant that seats about 250 to 300. It will feature a contemporary decor and fit into the style of the new Pier District, he said. Wannemacher Jensen Architects, the St. Petersburg firm that's part of the team designing the pier approach, is creating an environmentally friendly restaurant, Westphal said.

It will be different from the others he owns, he said.

"It's definitely family-friendly and affordable. I've heard from the city that they don't want another Beach Drive restaurant out there," he said.

"It's truly going to be an everyday person's restaurant, whether you're roller blading, riding your bicycle, in a car or coming in your boat, it's going to be a place for you to come and enjoy, and you're not going to have to break the bank to go and be part of it."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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