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Joe Henderson: Be wary of consultant’s report on St. Pete Pier project

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

The new St. Pete Pier – stop laughing – was originally supposed to cost around $45 million, give or take a couple of grouper. We know how that goes though. It’s kind of like when your cable company promises to provide a million channels for 99 cents, or something like that.

Then you get handed the bill.

Anyway, as the back-and-forth went on and cost estimates increased, former Mayor Bill Foster famously said, “For $50 million, the people will get a pier.”

That was in 2012.

That also may help explain why Foster is the “former” mayor, because the cost has risen to $66 million, except that the St. Pete City Council voted 5-3 recently to request $14 million in “enhancements” from a special taxing district that was supposed to go toward a transportation hub.

So, what’s a civic-minded, Pier-preachin’ group of elected officials to do when faced with a project carrying a sticker now approaching double the original cost?

Hey! I’ve got it! Let’s call a consultant!

The Lambert Advisory consulting firm produced a report that told St. Pete officials and residents not to worry (paraphrasing here) about the cost because the Pier and spin-off development will generate $80 million from eating, shopping and hotel nights.

Let’s see … 66 plus 14 … adding cost together, carry the 1 … hey, that’s $80 million!

The study says the income and the outgo will balance because of the 1.7 million visitors it estimates the Pier will attract in its first year.

Uh huh.

But, hey, these are professionals and the study says, the project, “is estimated to generate considerable expenditures directly within the Pier District, as well as off-Pier in the surrounding downtown area of approximately $30 million in food and beverage expenditures, $10 million in additional miscellaneous retail expenditures, and $15 million in annual hotel expenditure.”

It also ESTIMATES the Pier will generate, “1,080 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs within Pinellas County, creating $33 million in total direct and indirect wages.”

Go on …

Well, there is this qualifier: The study estimates the POTENTIAL annual demand for 102,000 hotel room nights from the Pier. In sports, there is a saying that “potential” is just “production” that hasn’t happened.

What could go wrong?

A lot of things.

Just look a few miles to the east at the Florida Aquarium in downtown Tampa. Built in the mid-1990s, it never came close to meeting original projections of attendance of 1.8 million the first year. Consultants also said it would make about a $3 million profit that first year.

Instead, it lost money – and kept losing money.

It took decades and millions of extra dollars to turn the Aquarium – derided locally as a glorified fish tank – into something people actually wanted to see.

Then again, consultants always have a get out of jail free card when their ESTIMATES go sour. They can blame a changing economy, bad weather, or Donald Trump. Without trying to disparage the noble profession of consulting, in the end, they are playing with other people’s money and producing glorified guesses subject to human nature.

How can anyone say people who were planning a trip to the Grand Canyon decided to change course because St. Pete spent millions on a Pier. Maybe they were coming to St. Pete anyway to visit grandma. If so, they might drop by the Pier. And how many of those 102,000 hotel room nights would have been filled anyway because of an improving economy and the fact that St. Pete has a lovely beach and other attributes?

I am not against the Pier. If St. Petersburg is determined to build a Pier, then officials should do it because they think it will make the city better.

But if those same officials think of it as a something that will send visitors stampeding downtown waving their platinum gold cards in the air, proceed with caution.

Joe Henderson has had a 45-year career in newspapers, including the last nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. He covered a large variety of things, primarily in sports but also including hard news. The two intertwined in the decade-long search to bring Major League Baseball to the area. Henderson was also City Hall reporter for two years and covered all sides of the sales tax issue that ultimately led to the construction of Raymond James Stadium. He served as a full-time sports columnist for about 10 years before moving to the metro news columnist for the last 4 ½ years. Henderson has numerous local, state and national writing awards. He has been married to his wife, Elaine, for nearly 35 years and has two grown sons – Ben and Patrick.

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