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Young professionals group pushes the St. Pete Lens

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Published:   |   Updated: July 15, 2013 at 07:42 PM

ST. PETERSBURG - To Jesse Landis, it looked like the Lens was sunk.

Polls suggested the $50-million futuristic pier, which the city chose to replace the aging inverted pyramid, was headed for defeat in the upcoming referendum, and the sole group campaigning for the new pier disbanded.

But everywhere the public relations and marketing specialist went, he met fans of the new design.

"I found myself in the same conversation every day with people who supported this thing," Landis said. "The idea started spreading. Could we do something?"

The result was Citizens for the St. Pete Pier, a political action committee formed by Landis and about 20 young professionals who are promising that the campaign leading up to the Aug. 27 vote on the pier will not be a one-sided conversation.

The group has now swelled to more than 100 volunteers, including attorneys, marketing professionals, architects, Realtors and people who work in construction. The group's Facebook page picked up more than 900 likes in little more than one week, and more than 100 people attended its first fundraiser at the St. Petersburg Museum of History Friday.

Group leaders plan to wage a campaign to counter what they see as misinformation about the project. Critics of the Lens have labeled the project as a "$50-million sidewalk to nowhere," complaining that it has very little air-conditioned space and no shops for visitors to escape Florida's brutal summers and sudden storms.

Plans for the pier include a gelato shop, a small restaurant with outdoor seating and an amphitheater. That would make the Lens an extension of the city's downtown, which has an emphasis on outdoor dining, said group co-chair Sara Stonecipher, a small business owner. The new pier would also appeal more to residents who could jog and cycle over the water, a sharp contrast from the inverted pyramid pier, much of which was pitched at tourists, she said.

"The pier represents the culture of today and what people are doing," she said. "People don't want to go to an interior mall with no windows."

They plan to go door to door and send out mailers that highlight how the nontraditional design of the Lens will compliment the city's other modernist buildings such as The Dali museum and continue the momentum of downtown's resurgence.

"I think St. Petersburg is on the verge of being an internationally important city," Landis said. "The Lens is a pillar of that. If we shoot it down, it's going to be a backward step."

Leaders of the group say they are under no illusion about the odds they face.

Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, the group that forced the referendum, has already spent more than $94,000 on its anti-Lens campaign, including more than $41,000 paid to PCI consultants, a Californian company hired to accelerate the group's petition drive, according to campaign finance records.

The group has also used donations to pay for a political consultant, an attorney and two organizers.

It still has about $30,000 in its campaign war chest, having raised just $7,860 over the last three months. The Citizens for the St. Pete Pier declined to say how much they've raised so far.

The emergence of the new pro-Lens group will not change Concerned Citizens' campaign, said Bill Ballard, one of the group's leaders.

"Our strategy is to get out the vote and try to keep information before the public about why the Lens is not worth $50 million of our tax dollars," he said. "We can certainly do better."

A June 17 poll conducted by StPetePolls found that almost 63 percent of 1,524 registered voters contacted by telephone supported scrapping the Lens. The poll's margin of error was 2.5 percent.

Among 18- to 29-year-olds, a demographic that Citizens for the St. Pete Pier expects to favor its pitch, 60 percent of respondents said the city should stop the project.

Nonetheless, Landis is optimistic. He said his group is getting support from the business community and is reaching out for support to companies such as Skanska, the local construction firm that would build the Lens.

The group also is getting support from the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce.

"I've talked to a lot of businesses that want to build this thing," said Chamber President Chris Steinocher. "They came out the gate late, so they need people to be aware of them."

codonnell@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-7654

Twitter: @codonnellTBO

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