Editorial: Saving the Pier makes no fiscal sense

Published June 27, 2013

Facts don't change, regardless of the wishful thinking of those who want to save St. Petersburg's 90-year-old Pier and its deteriorating 40-year-old inverted pyramid. Mayor Bill Foster muddied the waters Wednesday by saying his new Pier task force could consider the option of restoring the aging structure. He clarified on Thursday that he thinks the group will come to the same conclusion he and the City Council have: that the current Pier needs to go. That message needs reinforcing: There is no financially defensible case for saving the inverted pyramid, and trying to would throw good money after bad.

It's understandable why residents may be confused. Inverted-pyramid champion Kathleen Ford has built her third mayoral campaign on claims that she will save the pyramid, though she has failed to explain how she would find the money. And for months, opponents of the city's new design for a pier — who have put the Stop the Lens question on the August primary ballot — have sought to bring inverted-pyramid supporters into their fold, even though they have never promised they would work to save the building.

That's because even the Lens opponents acknowledge, at least privately, that trying to save the inverted pyramid would be a waste of money, a fact that's been obvious for nearly a decade. In 2004, an engineering firm determined that the lifespan of the Pier approach and the area that surrounds the inverted pyramid (which also is under the first floor shops) would need replacing by 2014. All along such a proposition was sure to be costly.

The findings eventually prompted the City Council and then-Mayor Rick Baker to establish the citizens Pier Advisory Task Force in 2009 to advise the best option for spending the $50 million that Pinellas County had agreed to spend on the Pier. Engineers hired by the task force confirmed the city's earlier findings, eventually putting the renovation costs at $87 million.

That estimate dropped to as low as $70 million in subsequent years. But that is still 40 percent more than the city's $50 million project budget and nearly twice as much as the construction of the actual Lens, at no more than $37 million.

Nor do those estimates take into account the outsized annual subsidy the inverted pyramid has required: $1.5 million. That's roughly twice what is expected for the Lens.

Foster would have better served the city if he just stuck to the facts. The mayor's willingness to revisit the existing Pier's future is more about election posturing than public policy. Foster said Thursday that nothing has changed his mind, and he assumes his advisers will come to the same conclusion there is no way to save the Pier for $50 million. But he should have just let the facts speak for themselves. The facts do not support saving the current Pier.