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Tuesday, Sep 02, 2014

St. Pete leaders consider information campaign for the Lens


Published:

Critics of St. Petersburg's new pier have lampooned it as a "sidewalk to nowhere," an overpriced piece of public art with barely anywhere to shop, eat, fish or escape from the heat.

Now, one City Council member wants to use taxpayer dollars to dispel what he says are misconceptions about The Lens, the controversial $50 million futuristic new pier whose future will be decided by residents in an Aug. 27 referendum.

Councilman Jeff Danner, a Lens supporter, is proposing the city fund a campaign to educate voters about The Lens. Danner said he did not have an amount for the campaign in mind but said that voters should have a better idea of what the Lens offers before they decide. Council members are scheduled to discuss Danner's proposal Thursday.

"We're not getting to people that there are restaurants; there is event space; there is boating and fishing," Danner said. "There are things to do other than bike-ride, but people are just not hearing it."

Danner's proposal comes at a time when momentum would seem to be with Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, the group that submitted more than 20,000 signatures to force the referendum and has collected $99,000 in campaign donations, according to city records.

Meanwhile, there is still doubt about whether backers of the Lens can raise the money to shift public opinion, which polls suggest heavily favors scrapping the project.

Led by TV pitchman Anthony Sullivan, WOW Our Waterfront St. Pete formed a political action committee to enable it to accept campaign donations. Sullivan sought donations from members of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce last week.

The groups's website was offline for maintenance Monday. Sullivan declined to comment on the campaign.

Chamber President Chris Steinocher said Sullivan did get some checks from chamber members but admitted that members are not optimistic about winning the referendum.

"Everybody is just disheartened with the poll numbers that show it's such a large number of folks that are unhappy with the Lens," he said.

It makes no sense to just hold a yes-no vote on the pier without giving voters an idea of an alternative, Steinocher said.

"We're in danger of not having a pier again, in danger of not moving forward as a community," he said.

Under state law, the city cannot spend taxpayer funds to advocate for the Lens. An educational campaign could be done cheaply, such as a website with quick facts about what is included in the Lens, Danner said.

That would include a list of the facilities, such as a 250-person seat amphitheater, a gelato store that would also offer beer and sandwiches and a 200-seat outdoor eating area for a restaurant operated by the owners of the Columbia restaurant, who are also planning a full-sized restaurant at the water's edge.

There would also be kayak rentals, tour-boat rides and fishing areas.

The city has so far been ineffective at explaining the project to residents, Councilman Charlie Gerdes said. He said he plans to hold town-hall meetings in his district to educate voters but said it may not be wise to spend more money on the Lens.

"We've been ineffective, I don't think there's any question about that," he said. "We've got two more months to change that."

codonnell@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-7654

Twitter: @codonnellTBO

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