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Romano: Only so much to learn from public survey on St. Pete's next pier

Destination St. Pete Pier, pictured, received the most votes, followed by Pier Park and Blue Pier.
Destination St. Pete Pier, pictured, received the most votes, followed by Pier Park and Blue Pier.
Published Mar. 11, 2015

The people have spoken. Or maybe they've just cleared their throats.

It's kind of hard to tell the difference when you consider the miniscule number of voices heard in the recent St. Petersburg pier survey.

In a city with nearly 230,000 eligible voters, only 9,631 verified residents bothered to weigh in. To put it another way, pick any crowd of two dozen people in St. Petersburg and chances are 23 of them did not offer an opinion on the city's next pier.

"My initial reaction to the survey? I wished a lot more people had voted," said City Council member Charlie Gerdes. "But it's consistent with what I've been hearing from people around town and in my neighborhood. They just want this to get done."

So here's the tricky part:

How much weight should be given to a nonbinding survey that may, or may not, be representative of what people across the city are thinking?

It's entirely possible that the 4.1 percent of residents who filled out a ballot represent a decent cross section of St. Petersburg communities. It's also possible that certain neighborhoods or demographics ended up with an outsized voice in the process.

"Everybody had a chance, everybody had an opportunity. It's certainly been well-publicized and well-known," said council member Steve Kornell.

"The people who participated are entitled to having an outsized voice. That's the way it works. If you don't like that, then you should have participated."

That is absolutely true. It is also true that the survey seemed purposefully structured to ensure that results would give only a general idea of what voters wanted.

Instead of choosing one design or ranking designs in order, residents were simply encouraged to choose their three favorites. That means it's possible one candidate got a disproportionate number of what were intended to be third-place votes. Or, for that matter, a disproportionate number of first-place votes.

All of which means the survey is interesting. It's somewhat informative. It should certainly be considered by the mayor's pier selection committee.

But, in no way should it be considered the final word.

"The committee has to take into consideration that it was a very low turnout," said council member Darden Rice. "I wouldn't want to hear that they dismissed the survey out of hand. I would want to know the narrative of how they came to a decision. But the possibility they would come to a different conclusion is completely reasonable."

It may also be required under a state law that dictates hiring decisions be based on a firm's qualifications. So while some residents might have made a visceral choice, the committee and council members have to consider budgets, permits, technical realities, a firm's track record and the possibility of future upkeep and operating costs.

Destination St. Pete Pier had a wide lead on the other six contenders in the public survey, and that will undoubtedly be a point in its favor.

But there are too many variables involved to depend solely on an American Idol-style poll. The last Pier may hold a special place in St. Petersburg lore, but it was overrated as an attraction and an oversized drain on city coffers. That mistake cannot be repeated.

One project will come out on top, but the city has to be the clear winner.