ST. PETERSBURG — After five years in storage, the historic bait shop that marked St. Petersburg’s pier for nearly a century was going to have its day in front of City Council.
Council member Robert Blackmon wanted to refurbish the structure, which dated back to the 1926 Million Dollar Pier, and install it on the new pier. A discussion was set for Thursday.
But last week, city workers demolished the hut on Mayor Rick Kriseman’s order.
The decision left Blackmon “literally dumbfounded.”
“It would have been a really cool way to add onto the marketplace of the pier and I don’t know why this happened and where the sense of urgency was,” he said.
Kriseman said the structure was dilapidated and missing a floor, and that it had been renovated so many times since its first installation that nothing original or worth preserving remained. He said keeping it stored was costing the city money, and to refurbish it would stress resources that, because of the pandemic, were in high demand for more important projects.
“We have been sitting on it now and it’s been taking up space for the last five years,” Kriseman said. “I‘ve got to look at everything we’re spending dollars on, and to me, continuing to preserve this thing, it just made no sense to me.”
The fate of the hut, which was about the size of a bedroom on the inside, was contentious five years ago, when it was removed before the demolition of the inverted pyramid pier. The city planned to auction it off.
“The City wants to ensure every opportunity is made to save the bait house for the community,” said a flier announcing the auction.
Preservationists cried out in opposition, thwarting the auction. Instead, the city took it to an outdoor storage facility underneath the Interstate 375/275 junction. There had been discussions at the time about the St. Petersburg Museum of History taking it over. But nothing ever materialized, and there it sat.
Blackmon took an interest in it several months ago, he said, and inquired to Kriseman’s administration about its location and condition. He visited it a few weeks ago and also scoped out a spot on the new pier, among the marketplace vendors, to install it.
Once refurbished and installed, he said, the building could have served as a welcome kiosk, or it could have been rented out and used as a merchandise shop. He said Preserve the ‘Burg, a St. Petersburg-based nonprofit dedicated to preservation, and the St. Petersburg Museum of History were interested.
He said the reaction from the administration was lukewarm, so he drafted an item for Thursday’s council agenda requesting a discussion on the bait house in a committee. Last week, he said, he received a message from the administration that “I might want to rethink my new business item, because it’s been destroyed.”
Blackmon called the timing — after five years of stagnation and one week before the discussion — “odd.”
Kriseman said there wasn’t anything to the timing. He said he forgot all about the building until a subordinate, Senior Capital Projects Coordinator David Hugglestone, brought it to his attention last month. He said he decided to demolish it before he became aware of Blackmon’s agenda item.
But email records show Kriseman knew about Blackmon’s initiative before demolition occurred.
Hugglestone emailed Kevin King, Kriseman’s chief of policy and public engagement, on Dec. 18 asking about the structure. Emails bounced around among city officials for the next week, with Kriseman asking for a “quick briefing ... a refresher before we pull the plug.”
On Dec. 21, Chris Ballestra, a managing director in the city’s development administration, notified the email group, including Kriseman, that he had met with Blackmon and representatives of Preserve the ‘Burg at the storage yard to view the house and discuss reinstalling it on the pier.
“I had indicated that there wasn’t a desire (Administratively) to do that (placement at the Pier), but he may put forward a new business item to see if he has traction on the subject with Council, whether at the Pier or to refurbish it and place it elsewhere in the City,” Ballestra wrote.
The next day, King gave the green light to have it demolished.
“Per the mayor, let’s proceed with timely demolition,” he said. “If there is a small part of the bait house of interest (historic shutters, for example) let’s remove and store. Otherwise, everything can be demolished given its condition, lack of historical elements, and lack of interest from preservation or historical organizations. Thanks!”
In a follow-up email dated Dec. 23, Derek Killborn, who oversees the city’s urban planning and historic preservation, noted that the bait house was on Thursday’s agenda. He asked if that changed anyone’s minds about demolition.
“The mayor has no change in position given it’s administrative,” King wrote.
Kriseman told the Tampa Bay Times on Monday that he “had given an order before and I didn’t see any reason to change that order” in light of the upcoming council discussion, which could have yielded more discussion.
“So you’re talking about utilizing staff time to come forward to discuss something we’d already made a decision on,” he said.
Ballestra confirmed Monday that there was nothing historic on the structure worth preserving.
Peter Belmont, a lawyer and Preserve the ‘Burg board member, said he was “disappointed” to hear of the bait shop’s destruction. He said the organization hadn’t had any conversations with the administration “in a long while” about reuse, but “I very much would have liked to be part of a conversation about possible uses of the building or dispositions of the building before it was lost.”
Rui Farias, the Museum of History’s executive director, said the museum was interested in saving the structure five years ago but didn’t have the funds to restore it — considering its poor condition, likely only worsened by the outdoor storage. He said it had been so drastically altered the only thing of historical significance was the original door, which the museum has on display. He admitted he thought the rest of it had already been destroyed.
Kriseman’s decision ignited a clash of words Monday. Blackmon accused Kriseman of overreach and called the decision “vindictive, certainly ... to avoid a discussion of something they didn’t want. They just decided to scuttle it.”
“This undermines the entire council process,” Blackmon said. “I’ve gone through all the proper channels on this. It’s a small project but it would have been a really neat project to tie history into our pier.”
Kriseman said there was nothing retributive. He invoked the city’s governing structure, which grants separate powers to council and the mayor.
“This was an administrative decision,” Kriseman said. “Council doesn’t weigh in on every single decision that I make everyday.”