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Romano: The St. Petersburg Pier is too important to get all cheap now

A rendering of the new St. Petersburg Pier design presented to the City Council at a March 17 workshop. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT   |   Times]
A rendering of the new St. Petersburg Pier design presented to the City Council at a March 17 workshop. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times]
Published Mar. 27, 2016

They are tightening here, and cutting back there.

They are manipulating, eliminating, redesigning and looking for spare change under park benches. St. Petersburg officials are asking architects and contractors to do whatever they can to bring the new pier in under budget.

And now that they've sweated and labored over all of those possibilities, here's one revision that will fix everything:

Change the budget.

Yup, it's really that easy.

It may not be popular today, but it will be the right decision down the road. This project is far too important — and already too expensive — to risk losing its appeal over a relatively small increase in the overall budget.

"In a worst-case scenario, we might invest another $5 million in a $50 million project,'' said City Council member Karl Nurse. "Otherwise, it's like buying a Christmas tree and not hanging any decorations on it.''

This is practically a no-brainer. It's foolish to doom a centerpiece of downtown's redevelopment because it might exceed the arbitrary cost established years ago.

Look at it this way:

From the time it was built, the inverted pyramid under-performed as an attraction. It was nice. It was functional. It had its supporters. But it wasn't spectacular by any definition.

Building a modern version of the same, boring, restaurant-based pier would be a mistake. Cutting too many corners would be a mistake. Stripping the uniqueness and charm out of the current design would be a mistake we would be staring at for the next half-century.

"Good stewardship doesn't necessarily mean pinching pennies,'' said council member Charlie Gerdes. "Good stewardship means making responsible decisions that may include spending more money right now to avoid spending more later.''

Before anyone starts flinging pelican poop, let's be clear:

This is not a bait-and-switch. Sixteen months ago, contractors looked at the design of all eight pier proposals and declared they would all come in over budget. The three proposals closest to the budget also happened to be three of the first eliminated.

Pier Park, as it was known then, was considered one of the two highest in terms of costs and, thus, of needing to lose amenities to get in under budget.

So, no, recent cuts and redesigns should not be a surprise.

And the idea that construction costs are higher now that the economy has rebounded also should not be a surprise, nor a reason to strip the pier down to the basics.

"Anybody who has ever done any major rehab in their homes knows that things can change, and you have to make game time decisions," said council member Darden Rice. "I feel confident that the majority of people understand this could involve some give and take."

The recent boom in downtown construction could actually account for any additional funds needed because it will likely increase revenue in the special taxing district that is funding the pier renovation.

Kevin King, chief of staff for Rick Kriseman, says the mayor is willing to be open-minded if it means maintaining Pier Park's original vision.

"The mayor has a track record of working with other stakeholders and getting creative to accomplish goals," King said. "If he has to look into new ideas in this case, I'm sure he'll be receptive."

Floating docks, a water lounge and a more attractive children's splash pad were all considered unique features that would draw visitors beyond a signature restaurant. Yet those features are all in jeopardy to some degree because of budget constraints.

Since it's an evolving process, it's hard to pin down exact figures, but all of those amenities could probably be redrawn in the project for somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million. That's not an unreasonable amount when you're trying to safeguard the 40- or 50-year success of a project this large.

There is a difference between not being able to afford something, and simply cutting because it doesn't fit into a pre-conceived notion.

Critics will surely scream. They will accuse local officials of going back on their word. They will employ I-told-you-so arguments about their favored pier proposal. They will make it seem as if the entire city is against the idea of spending one dime more than budgeted.

Officials should listen, but they should not be swayed by emotion.

This could be the difference between a nice pier and a potentially wonderful city centerpiece. Now is not the time for cold feet or small thinkers.


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