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Taxpayer subsidies inevitable at the new St. Pete Pier

The new 26-acre Pier District is projected to require a slightly higher subsidy than the compact attraction it’s replacing.

ST. PETERSBURG — Months after the controversial inverted pyramid was shuttered in 2013 and public debate continued about the city’s more than century-old tradition of a downtown pier, a survey indicated that a majority of residents weren’t concerned about the prospect of a taxpayer subsidy that might come with a new project.

Six years later, that new Pier District is almost complete, and city officials estimate that the annual taxpayer subsidy will be $1.9 million. That’s a slightly higher figure than the average 10-year subsidy of $1.4 million that was needed to provide upkeep for the old Pier.

City officials point out that the new Pier, now a 26-acre destination, covers a much larger expanse than the former one, which totaled 5 ½ acres.

Related: RELATED: Interest in St. Pete Pier naming rights gains traction

Plans are being made to offset the subsidy in a number of ways — the latest, selling trademarked St. Pete Pier items. But the sale of naming rights for components of the district is expected to be a major moneymaker. The city also will collect parking fees and rent from two restaurants, smaller food establishments and a marketplace near the Pier entrance. The city says 17 vendors have already been selected for the marketplace and will be notified in coming days.

St. Petersburg's new 26-acre Pier District, with components that will include a coastal thicket walking path, marketplace, playground, tilted lawn, and pavilion, is expected to open in the spring. The project, which will also include two restaurants, the Teak on the fourth floor of the Pier head building, and Doc Ford's Rum Bar and Grille on the waterfront closer to downtown, is expected, to cost about $92 million. This view looking east is the marketplace where vendors will sell their goods.
St. Petersburg's new 26-acre Pier District, with components that will include a coastal thicket walking path, marketplace, playground, tilted lawn, and pavilion, is expected to open in the spring. The project, which will also include two restaurants, the Teak on the fourth floor of the Pier head building, and Doc Ford's Rum Bar and Grille on the waterfront closer to downtown, is expected, to cost about $92 million. This view looking east is the marketplace where vendors will sell their goods. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]

Bud Risser, who led the tenacious Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg group that scuttled the original design for the new Pier and continued to keep a critical eye on all aspects of the project, supports a subsidy.

“We don’t use that word for other civic activities such as our beautiful park system, our libraries, or our recreational facilities and baseball fields scattered throughout our city," Risser wrote to the committee charged with selecting a Pier design to replace the one his group helped sink through a 2013 referendum.

Related: RELATED: St. Petersburg voters decisively reject the Lens

"The issue is not the amount of financial support, but whether the financial support is justified by the added value it brings to our community, both in lifestyle and economic benefit,” he wrote in 2015.

The new Pier, with its splash pad, children’s playground, family park and other amenities, “is about an experience every step that you take,” said Alan DeLisle, the city’s development administrator. The old one "was really a building on the Pier head.”

St. Petersburg's new 26-acre Pier District, with components that will include a coastal thicket walking path, marketplace, playground, tilted lawn, and pavilion, is expected to open in the spring. The project , which will also include two restaurants, the Teak on the fourth floor of the Pier head building, and Doc Ford's Rum Bar and Grille on the waterfront closer to downtown, is expected, to cost about $92 million. A view looking west shows the new children's playground.
St. Petersburg's new 26-acre Pier District, with components that will include a coastal thicket walking path, marketplace, playground, tilted lawn, and pavilion, is expected to open in the spring. The project , which will also include two restaurants, the Teak on the fourth floor of the Pier head building, and Doc Ford's Rum Bar and Grille on the waterfront closer to downtown, is expected, to cost about $92 million. A view looking west shows the new children's playground. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]

Addressing the need for a subsidy, DeLisle said it is difficult for the city to derive income from charter-protected waterfront property. Most of the Pier amenities are mainly for quality of life, not to generate revenue. Still, he said, the goal is to keep the subsidy “as low as possible.”

Chris Ballestra, the city’s managing director of development coordination, said expenses at the new, larger Pier District will be about the same as at the old Pier. There’s more landscaping to maintain, but the new project is more efficient, he said. “It is 100 percent LED lighting ... so we will not have some of the costs we had at the old Pier,” he said.

“Most of us hope that the Pier project will be a wonderful amenity to our city,” Risser said recently. “But most of us realize that it will likely require a subsidy.”

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