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Columbia restaurant could be back at the St. Petersburg Pier

ST. PETERSBURG — Fans of the Columbia could see the popular restaurant return to the St. Petersburg Pier.

Demolition has barely begun of the old Pier, but St. Petersburg officials are already looking for someone to develop, lease and operate a restaurant at the easternmost point of its replacement. Plans also call for two more restaurants on the Pier approach.

But close proximity of the three restaurants to Beach Drive could bring unwanted competition.

"I do think we have to be aware of a saturation point and of the size of the community to support three more restaurants," said Chuck Prather, who owns the Birchwood at 340 Beach Drive NE with his wife, Kathy.

"I'm thrilled with the new Pier and its design and what it will bring to St. Petersburg, so it clearly needs to have the hospitality component. Will it support three? I'm not sure," said Prather, whose hotel has two restaurants, the Canopy Rooftop Lounge and Birch & Vine.

Richard Gonzmart, president of the Columbia Restaurant Group, said his family-owned enterprise might bid for one, or all three, Pier locations. He said, though, that the Columbia, which had been at the inverted pyramid since 1988 and remained until the structure was shuttered by former Mayor Bill Foster in 2013, might be a better fit on the uplands.

"I don't really understand the Pier head. I haven't been able to analyze that yet," Gonzmart, who returned from Europe last week, said of plans for the east end of the new landmark.

"My concern is whether there's an ability for customers to be dropped off and also servicing the restaurant for deliveries. I'm going to look at all three projects. If I do submit a plan, it's because I believe it would be a success for us and it will be a success for the city. Everybody has to win."

Last week the city put out a request for proposals for a full-service, approximately 7,600-square-foot casual restaurant on the third floor of the new Pier Park structure that will replace the inverted pyramid.

The city has not yet solicited proposals for the two restaurants planned for the approach. One will be a two-level, approximately 8,000-square-foot, casual restaurant near the St. Petersburg Museum of History. A fine dining restaurant — a minimum of 8,000 square feet — is planned for the southeastern edge of the Pelican parking lot.

Chris Steinocher, president and chief executive of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, is "cautiously optimistic" that there will be no drawback to adding restaurants close to the successful Beach Drive row.

"We are attracting a lot of people in this community and they expect all types of experiences along our waterfront and along Beach Drive. The magic is going to be that we create unique dining experiences that will draw more people to our area and create more opportunities for everyone to be successful," he said.

Steinocher said he would welcome a return of the Gonzmarts.

"The Gonzmart family is probably the greatest family in the restaurant business in Florida and to have them back in St. Pete is important. … I will put my arms around them and make sure they have every opportunity to be successful here in St. Pete," he said.

A possible Gonzmart return also is drawing support from prominent businessman Bob Churuti, a co-director with his brother-in-law John Hamilton Jr. of more than 60,000 square feet of their family-owned Beach Drive retail property, which leases to several restaurants.

Until recently, Churuti, who sat on the Pier Advisory Task Force that produced a key report in 2010, objected to past plans for restaurants on the Pier uplands.

"The Columbia was always a nice draw for the city," he said this week. "They are not going to cannibalize the restaurant area. I would be in favor of any restaurant that was run by the Gonzmart family on the approach."

Earlier this year, as a committee grappled with a Pier design choice, Gonzmart's brother, Casey, endorsed one that proposed a fine dining restaurant on the Pier approach. In 2013, the Gonzmarts announced plans to invest more than $4 million to develop two restaurants as part of the Lens, a design the public resoundingly rejected in a referendum that year.

This time around, Richard Gonzmart is more cautious.

"I am excited about what's taking place in St. Pete and hope to be considered for whatever I decide to bid on," he said.

The deadline for proposals for the restaurant at the end of the Pier is Nov. 5.

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

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