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  1. St. Petersburg

Tampa Bay Watch dedicates the first building in St. Petersburg's $80 million Pier District

ST. PETERSBURG — The first building of the new $80 million St. Pete Pier, which the contractor has said should be substantially complete in December, was dedicated Tuesday.

About two dozen people gathered halfway down the Pier approach for the event at the structure being built to house hands-on marine exhibits and teach about Tampa Bay's ecosystem. The building might appear complete from afar, but a closer view of its angular form reveals months of work still ahead before the education center residents have said they want is ready to lay out the welcome mat.

Tuesday afternoon, Tampa Bay Watch, selected by the city to establish and operate the new center, recognized a major donor and others who have contributed to the nonprofit's mission.

The official name is lengthy — Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center presented by the Milkey Family Foundation — and honors $1 million donors, St. Pete Beach residents Kevin and Jeanne Milkey.

Previous coverage: St. Pete Council approves more contingency funds, other payments for $80 million Pier District

Mayor Rick Kriseman, standing amid the acres of the Pier District taking form, said the project had long been just a vision. He praised the Milkeys, saying they had "stepped up in a big way" to make a difference in the community.

The couple has made two of four installments of the promised donation, with the next two of $250,000 each timed over the next two years, Kevin Milkey, executive vice president of ASI, told the Tampa Bay Times.

"We really support their mission of protecting and restoring Tampa Bay waterways and the education programs that Tampa Bay Watch provides," he said. "Jeanne and I are passionate about protecting the environment. I think that the way we need to do that — and Tampa Bay Watch is doing that — is through education."

Peter Clark, founder and president of the organization, said Tampa Bay Watch has estimated it will need $2.5 million to launch and operate the center for the first year. The money will be used for amenities such as classrooms, hands-on interactive exhibits, marine tanks and multimedia supplies, as well as staff. About $600,000 still needs to be raised.

"We have our name sponsors and a lot of local corporations and individuals have stepped up," Clark said. "We feel comfortable where we are and clearly, there's still work that needs to be done."

Representatives from Duke Energy also attended Tuesday's event. Duke Energy Foundation has given $100,000 to the project, $75,000 of which will sponsor an exhibit on living shoreline restoration in Tampa Bay. The remaining $25,000 is to be used to design and participate in a corporate volunteer event focused on a living restoration project in the bay, such as salt marsh planting or an oyster reef construction project, Clark said.

The conservation group has selected a "world class" exhibit designer to conduct brainstorming workshops for program staff and others in the community about what will be exhibited and how, Clark said.

He said the firm, Brilliant Creative Fabrications, has an international reputation and has worked for Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science in Miami.

"Our vision for the Discovery Center is to educate residents and visitors alike on the quality and uniqueness of the Tampa Bay estuary and Tampa Bay Watch's role to foster environmental stewardship," he said.

The organization, established in 1993, is based in Tierre Verde. Under its lease at the Pier, the group will give the city nine scholarships for St. Petersburg students for summer camp programs.

Tuesday, Clark thanked Kriseman for giving the conservation group "the opportunity to tell the story of Tampa Bay."

The city, which is building the shell of the Discovery Center, will contribute $150,000 to its interior. Tampa Bay Watch is covering the remainder of the $711,371 cost. Classrooms will be on the east side of the center, while the exhibition space will face downtown. The tiered seating of the public amphitheater just outside its doors will lead down to the bay. The organization plans to use the amphitheater for programming at the water level, Clark said. Tampa Bay Watch will also incorporate an eco-vessel that accommodates about 40 passengers into its programming, he said.

Milkey said he hopes the new Discovery Center creates an awareness "of all the great work that Tampa Bay Watch has done" over the years. "I just hope that youth and adults know that what every person does with the bay affects it. That it has an impact on the environment," he said.