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Monday, May 21, 2018
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Empty pier looms over St. Pete

ST. PETERSBURG — Once content to sit on the guardrail, pelican birds now have the run of the deserted pier.

The inverted pyramid building sits empty, closed off behind a 10-foot chain link fence. Nearby, the Pelican and Dolphin parking lots are vast expanses of bare tarmac.

Replacing The Pier was one of the city’s top priorities when Mayor Bill Foster took office in 2010. Almost four years later, the city is no closer to resolving what to do with the 40-year-old edifice that some see as a symbol of Foster’s failed leadership.

Throughout the first half of this year, Foster and city officials raced to close The Pier and maintained it would be demolished in August, even if, as happened, voters rejected the Lens, the $50-million avant-garde pier design city officials chose to replace the inverted pyramid.

Now, city officials admit The Pier will still be here through the rest of the year.

And it could sit vacant much longer.

Officials from the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers said they have put the city’s permit application on hold until the city comes up with a new plan for the pier. That could delay demolition well into next year, and the uncertainty over what will replace it has raised the specter that the city will be without a pier for years to come.

The loss of the waterfront attraction is already hurting nearby businesses, including the St. Petersburg Museum of History and Pier Dolphin Cruises.

Foster’s leadership on the pier issue has been cited by city leaders who have supported his opponent, former state lawmaker Rick Kriseman.

City Council member Leslie Curran, a Republican who crossed party lines to endorse Kriseman, said it was the city’s failure to sell the Lens to residents that doomed the project.

“If there was a good leader, that would have happened,” Curran said. “That, to me, showed a total lack of leadership. “It’s one big mess.”

Throughout his campaign, Foster has defended his leadership on the pier issue. He repeatedly emphasized that he supported holding a referendum in 2012, when the City Council rejected a grassroots petition to save the inverted pyramid.

Once a supporter of the Lens, Foster now admits that it was more a work of art than a functioning pier.

“The previous project was form first, then function; my proposal going forward is function first,” he said

With The Lens now dead, Foster said he will lead the city as it chooses a new design based on the recommendations of the 828 Alliance, the group that he formed to provide a way forward after the referendum.

“It’s an issue of great importance to the city,” he said.

Talk of a new pier in the future is little comfort to business owners who wanted The Pier to remain open.

For 22 years, Fred DeBardelaben ran Pier Dolphin Cruises from the end of The Pier.

Four times a day, DeBardelaben would skipper his 46-foot catamaran with twin diesel engines out from The Pier, ferrying tourists on a 90-minute excursion to spots in Tampa Bay where he knew they would almost certainly encounter dolphins.

When The Pier closed, he moved his business to a slip at the nearby marina. But without the foot traffic and tourists that The Pier attracted, business has slumped by 90 percent, he said.

Instead of operating seven days a week, he now just runs trips on weekends. Even then, there are only enough passengers for two trips per day.

In June, the month after the city closed The Pier, he took in just $6,000, down from $38,000 compared to the same month last year. He has laid off four workers.

“Just me and my wife are running it now,” he said.

Unable to cover his expenses, DeBardelaben plans to leave St. Petersburg, which has been his home for 40 years. He has scouted out locations in Sarasota, Fort Myers and Orange Beach in Alabama.

He is angry at how the city treated him and cannot understand the city’s haste to close The Pier before the referendum.

“This is the worst I’ve ever seen,” DeBardelaben said. “You don’t do something like that unless you have something in place. They can go out and beg for another boat to come in here.”

Directly across Second Avenue Northeast sits the St. Petersburg Museum of History.

Since The Pier closed, attendance at the museum has dropped by 20 percent, or roughly 700 people, compared to the same period last year, said James Parrish, museum director of marketing and special events.

Some of those who have come through the doors are dismayed visitors who expected The Pier to be open.

Museum leaders have sped up plans to open a café-bar that they hope will make the museum more of a destination.

“We have to do something to drive more traffic,” said Parrish.

One of the museum’s recent exhibits was a history of the city’s seven piers. It included pictures of the Million Dollar Pier, which was demolished in 1967, even though the city had no plan to replace it. It was another six years before the inverted pyramid opened.

“Once again, history is repeating itself,” said Nevin Sitler, the museum’s director of education and outreach. “We’re going to have a dead pier-head at the pier.”

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