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Pier decision hinges on two swing votes

ST. PETERSBURG — Facing another cliffhanger in the continuing Pier saga, City Council members must make one of their most crucial decisions about the divisive project today.

They are scheduled to decide whether to push ahead with the proposed $50 million Pier known as the Lens — despite an almost certain referendum designed to stop construction — or delay the project until voters have their say, most likely in the Aug. 27 primary.

"I think we have a reasonable chance of getting five people to say hit the pause button," council chair Karl Nurse said.

And the votes could be stacking up as he predicts.

Nurse and council members Charlie Gerdes and Wengay Newton are in favor of holding off on the project. Colleagues Jeff Danner, Leslie Curran and Bill Dudley, though, want to proceed. Jim Kennedy and Steve Kornell hold the possible swing votes.

Council approval to move forward to the next phase of the project to replace the 1973 inverted pyramid would call for spending $1.5 million more, which opponents characterize as an affront to taxpayers.

"They should not be authorizing the money," said Bud Risser, a leader of Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, which announced last week that it has gathered enough petitions to force a public vote to stop the Lens.

If so, several council members ask, why not turn them in?

"I am disappointed that they are not willing to accept my representation, and we will turn them in when we think it is appropriate to do so," Risser said. "However, given we are going to have a referendum, surely City Council members can understand that it would be irresponsible to spend up to $3 million between now and the referendum without knowing the outcome."

Nurse, who was the first person to sign Concerned Citizens' petition, said early this week that he had encouraged the group to turn the petitions in before today's meeting.

"My intention is to vote to hit the pause button until the voters tell us what they want," he said.

During today's meeting, Michael Maltzan Architecture, the Lens' designer, will present its latest report, a 400-plus-page document with new details. Dudley wants to accept the report and carry on.

"Until we change direction, we keep moving forward," he said.

"Mr. Maltzan entered into a contract with the city of St. Petersburg and I think we have a responsibility to him. Mr. Risser is a businessman and I would think he would feel that way.''

The contract with Maltzan allows the city to suspend or terminate work at any point, though it would have to pay costs and fees incurred.

"The certainty of having a referendum sheds a whole new light on whether we should spend any more money or not," said Gerdes, who has supported the project. "If the referendum is going to happen, I can't vote to spend any money until the referendum is done."

"I'm not worried about the referendum," Danner said. "It's going to fail and we're going to build it. There really is a large number of people who really want to move forward and think this project is great."

Anthony Sullivan, founder of WOW Our Waterfront St. Pete, said his group is prepared to campaign on its behalf. "If it is going to be a vote, voters need to know what the stakes are," he said. "We are going to have an educated vote based on the facts."

Concerned Citizens has said the new Pier is an unsuitable addition to the waterfront and does not adhere to the recommendations of the 20-member Pier Advisory Task Force formed in 2009.

"I feel that we just continue to put one foot in front of the next and move forward," said Curran, who sat on the Task Force and was chairwoman of the jury that selected Maltzan's design from an international field of competitors.

In December, council members approved a resolution to appropriate $4.7 million for Maltzan to continue designing the Lens and for Skanska USA Builders to continue preconstruction services. The council, though, decided to release only $1.7 million and ordered city staff to return for authorization to spend additional money. That's what they are doing this week. If approved, they will seek $1.5 million to $1.6 million more in August or September for the next phase.

Kornell, who has questions about the latest Maltzan report, has yet to make up his mind on the additional $1.5 million.

His decision would hinge on the answer to a particular question: "How much of the money would be lost if there's a vote and the vote goes against the Lens?" he said.

Newton, a longtime opponent of the project, did not equivocate. "I pledged to be a good steward of the taxpayers' money and resources," he said. "The people are going to vote that they are going to stop the Lens."

Kennedy is concerned about the repercussions of halting the project. "If we choose not to go forward with the Lens, then we could have five to 10 years without having a Pier," he said.

"We can't stop moving forward any time we have a vocal minority with money opposing us. We would never go forward with anything."

Mayor Bill Foster has said that he is not opposed to a referendum. An impending vote would warrant a delay, he said.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at or (727) 892-2283.