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St. Petersburg gets zero bids for restaurant at new Pier Park

Published Nov. 6, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — Not a single restaurateur submitted a bid by Thursday's deadline to open an establishment at the city's new Pier Park, fueling doubt that the dining anchor of the $46 million project is considered viable by those who would operate it.

While city officials had hoped to attract several bids to develop, lease and operate a restaurant at the pier by 1 p.m. Thursday, officials downplayed the fact that the deadline passed with zero bids received.

"It's early," said Chris Ballestra, the city's managing director of development coordination. "This would go in a project that won't open until 2018. It doesn't surprise me at all that we didn't get any bids."

Ballestra said the city sought bids now because it was a way to "test the waters" and gauge interest. He said restaurant owners probably shied away because there were so few details about the project.

Right now, the third-story location and 7,600-square-foot size of the full-service restaurant is all that is known about it, Ballestra said.

"We don't even have a floor plan yet," he said.

That should change early next year when design schematics are due. Once new details emerge, like whether the restaurant will serve a nearby water lounge, restaurateurs should have a better idea of the project's scope and logistics, Ballestra said.

A second request for bids will go out soon after those details emerge.

"I can't tell you when, but it will be when we're substantially in the design phase next summer," Ballestra said.

But the lack of bids reflected deeper flaws in the project than just timing, said Richard Gonzmart, a member of the family that operated a Columbia Restaurant, along with Cha Cha Coconuts, at the inverted pyramid between 1987 and 2013.

"The city is going to face a real challenge," Gonzmart said. "For one, there's no parking out there. Talk to any national chain, and they'll tell you parking is a real priority."

Gonzmart agreed to open a new restaurant when the new pier project was the Lens. But voters rejected the Lens in a 2013 referendum. Council members approved the new pier project earlier this year, and request for bids for a restaurant at the Pier Park went out in August.

Another local restaurateur, Steve Westphal, also had misgivings about a Pier Park restaurant. The city plans to seek bids for two restaurants on the Pier Park approach in the spring, which he said would be more promising from a business standpoint.

"If you're building those restaurants closer to land, I'd be more interested in bidding on those," Westphal said. "The views are phenomenal from there, too. I fear the restaurant at the pier is too remote. I could see it lending itself to a more casual environment, something like a quick serve."

As the owner of two Beach Drive staples, 400 Seafood & Tap House, Parkshore Grill and the nearby Hangar Restaurant and Flight Lounge at Albert Whitted Airport, Westphal conceded that he's not exactly a disinterested observer. He said the closure of the inverted pyramid has been a boon to his upland restaurants.

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"I've enjoyed the abundance of interest in Beach Drive since the Pier closed," Westphal said. "But St. Pete keeps growing. There's room for a pier restaurant. I just think it's too grandiose the way it is now."

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