Supporters of the Lens project this week backed away from plans to campaign actively for its approval. Wannemacher Jensen Architects Inc.
BY CHRISTOPHER O'DONNELL Tribune staff
Published: June 21, 2013
Updated: June 21, 2013 at 10:55 PM
ST. PETERSBURG - Backers of St. Petersburg's proposed new pier may have ditched plans to campaign for the Lens, but residents should still expect a heavy dose of telephone calls and mailings in the run-up to Election Day.
Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, the anti-Lens group that forced the referendum, is still planning an intensive campaign, although its focus will now shift to ensuring a high turnout of supporters rather than trying to win over undecided residents, group leaders said Friday.
The Aug. 27 referendum on the pier's future was anticipated as major battle pitting Concerned Citizens against the city, the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce and Wow Our Waterfront St. Pete, a political action committee that championed the $50-million Lens project. On Thursday, though, Wow leader Anthony Sullivan effectively disbanded its campaign and called on the city to cancel the Lens contract.
Another hope for Lens fans was dashed when City Council members late Thursday decided against funding an education campaign to counter what some council members say is a misconception that the Lens would have no facilities.
After surprising people this week by urging the city to cancel the Lens contract, Chamber of Commerce leaders Friday said they will encourage their members to support the Lens but said they will not be campaigning or asking members to contribute campaign donations.
That leaves the way clear for Concerned Citizens to get its message out, virtually guaranteeing the futuristic Lens will not be built in St. Petersburg, said Darryl Paulson, a retired emeritus of government and Florida politics at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg
"People who are opposed to the new pier are much more likely committed to their cause and more motivated and will turn out," said Paulson. "I would expect it to win at least 60-40, if not by a bigger margin."
Nonetheless, Concerned Citizens plans to spend a sizeable portion of its campaign war-chest to secure that victory. The group had raised $99,000 by the end of the March, reports show.
The group expects that having the pier referendum on the ballot could increase voter turnout by as much as 10 percent over the 23 percent that voted in the 2009 mayoral race.
That raises the cost to reach likely voters. Mailers typically cost about 40 to 50 cents apiece, and the cost of robocalls runs between 2 to 10 cents per call.
One easy option for Concerned Citizens is to target the 40,000 residents who have signed one of two petitions opposing the Lens. Mailers could be sent out as soon as July 24 to coincide with voters receiving mail ballots. The group could spend as much as $50,000 on the campaign, leaders said.
"In these types of situations you never assume you're going to win a referendum," said Fred Whaley, one of the leaders of the group. "The numbers showing more than two-thirds in favor of stopping the Lens has not changed in the last year. We need to make sure we get the voters out to vote their desires."
The group will not have to worry about countering an educational campaign either. City Council members on Thursday agreed to continue the city's outreach efforts to promote the Lens but not to pay for a more widespread education campaign called for by Council members Jeff Danner and Leslie Curran.
That will reduce promotional efforts to producing flyers for council members to hand out in neighborhood meetings they are planning to hold to promote the Lens.
The city also will maintain information on its website and do outreach at events, such as next weekend's St. Pete Pride festivities.
Some City Council members described the city's communication effort as ineffective. A poll of 300 likely voters conducted on behalf of the Wow Our Waterfront group found that 62 percent agreed with a description of the new pier as a $50-million sidewalk with no facilities. The actual plan includes two eateries, a community amphitheater and fishing bait and kayak rental kiosks.
"We've done the best job we could with the resources that we have," said Beth Herendeen, the city's director of marketing and communications. "We've talked to thousands of people at morning markets and events, but it's been one person at a time."
The city also had to overcome residents' conviction that they should have a say over any waterfront project, Paulson said. Concerned Citizens' success at forcing the referendum through a petition process has cemented its support with residents angry at not getting a vote, he said.
"People feel they're cut out of decisions of consequence that involve millions of dollars," Paulson said. "The city is afraid they can't come up with enough rationale to convince voters this is the right thing to do; essentially what they are saying is we have no faith in the public and we're going to exclude them."