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Monday, Sep 22, 2014

St. Pete spending more than $400k to maintain closed pier


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ST. PETERSBURG — Had everything gone according to plan, the inverted pyramid pier would by now be rubble, not the deserted and barricaded waterfront attraction that looms over the downtown waterfront.

Closing the 40-year-old building was supposed to save the city the $1.4 million it spent every year subsidizing The Pier and position St. Petersburg to move forward with a more modern pier.

With the city yet to secure a demolition permit, though, City Hall officials admit that taxpayers this year are likely to end up paying roughly $420,000 to maintain an empty building.

Almost $240,000 of that will go to providing 24-hour security at The Pier. City Council members on Monday are scheduled to discuss extending a contract with ABM Security Services for two unarmed guards to patrol the approach and the building that is secured by a 10-foot chain-link fence.

The city also expects to pay $111,000 in utility bills to keep The Pier air-conditioned to prevent mold growth. Other expenses include maintenance and cleaning.

“We’re spending almost a half-million dollars on a building people can’t use,” said Councilman Wengay Newton. “I say open it up and allow people to use elevators and take pictures of the view.”

Other city leaders point out that the maintenance cost is still much less than The Pier’s operating subsidy and that the expense is a result of voters rejecting the Lens, the city’s proposed replacement pier.

“An open building was costing us a million and a half,” said Councilman Jim Kennedy. “If we were moving forward with the Lens, we would not have this expenditure.”

Even before the inverted pyramid closed, 24-hour security was provided for The Pier, even though its operating hours ended at 11 p.m., said Chris Ballestra, the city’s managing director of development.

The security is to ensure nothing goes awry on the 1,000-foot pier approach that is still open for anglers, walkers, cyclists and joggers, city officials say. There is also the risk that boaters could moor at The Pier and enter the building through the rear.

“We just want to make sure nothing bad happens out here — kids jumping off and swimming, things of that nature,” Ballestra said.

Mayor Elect Rick Kriseman, who is will take office Jan. 2, said he will talk to city police and legal staff to see if 24-hour security is needed.

“I wouldn’t want to put our citizens or our taxpayers at risk because we created an environment that is dangerous,” Kriseman said.

Kriseman has already said he would like to get more use out of The Pier while the city moves forward on selecting a replacement for the Lens proposal.

He said he will consider opening the area around the outside of The Pier, provided it does not cost the city additional money.

“Right now, we’re not getting any benefit for the money we’re spending,” he said.

Closing The Pier on June 1 was intended to pave the way for demolition to begin in August. Businesses on the pier were given two years’ notice they’d have to move out, but many stayed until the final week. An estimated 400 people worked on the five-story pier, which included restaurants, shops and an aquarium.

Critics claim the city pushed ahead with the closure hoping that would sway residents to support the Lens in the Aug. 27 referendum. Roughly 63 percent of voters rejected the futuristic proposal, though.

“It’s unfortunate that 400 full- and part-time people are out of work and the city’s biggest tourist destination is shuttered,” said Tom Lambdon, one of the leaders of voteonthepier.com, a group trying to save the inverted pyramid.

Mayor Bill Foster has repeatedly countered that argument by saying that, with its anchor tenants — the Columbia Restaurant and Cha Cha Coconuts — closing, it was not viable to keep The Pier open.

Just how long taxpayers will pay upkeep on the closed building is unsure.

City officials are still seeking a demolition permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, although it is unclear whether renovation of the inverted pyramid is an option.

Kriseman said repeatedly during his campaign he would prefer to demolish the building, although a local architectural firm has floated a proposal to refashion The Pier within the city’s remaining $46-million budget for a new pier.

A final step before the Army Corps issues a demolition permit is for the city to complete a cultural study of the inverted pyramid. That could lead to its inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places but would not save the building from demolition. City officials could argue that the aging and corroded pier approach is a danger to the public. The study is expected to be completed by January, Ballestra said.

Once Kriseman takes office, he said he will reconvene a pier task force to pick up where the original task force left off. The group will use the results from an online survey the city is conducting and additional input from residents to produce a list of what amenities residents want out on their pier and then go out to bid on the project.

But he admitted that his election pledge of completing a new pier by the end of 2015 could be overly ambitious.

“If we didn’t set some parameters and benchmarks, it could hang out there forever, and I didn’t want to see that happen,” he said. “I hope we can get it done.”

codonnell@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-7654

Twitter: @codonnellTBO

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