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Pier Park opposition amps up social media voice

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

The group VoteOnThePier has given little indication of where they’re at in a petition drive seeking to require a voter referendum for any major construction or demolition projects on downtown waterfront. But an uptick in activity on the group’s Facebook page indicates the fight is far from over.

The May 13 post displayed a photo with St. Pete Public Works Administrator and the Pier Selection Committee chair dressed as a king sitting on a throne with a link to an article critical of Pier Park and the selection committee’s dismissal of Destination St. Pete Pier, which would have been a revival of the current inverted pyramid the group wants to save.

That post came just a few weeks after Connors and his selection committee voted on Pier Park, a design that reuses some structural parts of the existing Pier, but that reimagines the waterfront space with more green use.

The next post on the group’s Facebook page didn’t come until earlier this month. On July 6 there was a post linking to a Tampa Bay Times story about opposition for Pier Park gathering. The post read, “we are still here, working behind the scenes.”

Since that post, there have been other links, photos and commentary put up almost every day.

The most recent post is critical, again, of Connors. It links to an op-ed written by Eugene Webb about the various failings of Connors and the Rick Kriseman administration’s decision to pull him as the head from some departments. That post showed up on the group’s Facebook page Monday.

Between July 6 and now there have been multiple posts on multiple topics all critical of the city’s current and past process, a process that appears to be moving swiftly toward the demolition of the inverted pyramid.

When City Council approved contracts earlier this month with Pier Park designers and for the demolition of the Pier, including the inverted pyramid, the group posted another post by Eugene Webb arguing the Kriseman administration first manipulated the Pier process and then manipulated City Council. Webb’s piece asked why the city was in such a Rush. He answered, “The rush is all about getting ahead of a potential referendum.”

If successful, the referendum could, hypothetically, bar the city from moving forward with demolition, but organizers of that effort are racing against a tough clock.

Demolition of the inverted pyramid stalled earlier this month when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stepped in saying the city required permits from them in order to demolish the structure at the end of the Pier. Connors had previously claimed the city needed only internal permits that had already been acquired.

The city is prepared to begin demolition as soon as those permits are acquired and there’s little indication of when that could be. According to city staff it could be as little as about a month.

And the city is under no obligation to see how the petition effort plays out. If they get the required permits before the question is put to voters, there’s nothing petitioners could do to save the structure.

They would have to gather the required number of petition signatures, about 16,000 are needed, have those signatures verified by the Supervisor of Elections and then schedule the measure for an election. Even if there aren’t any legal challenges to the ballot language included on the signature, as there were with the initial effort to kill the Lens back in 2013, the process of getting the issue before voters would likely take more time than it would for the city to get its demolition petitions in order.

Perhaps that is why there is little mention of the actual petition effort on the group’s Facebook page. Each post, instead, is critical of the Pier process, the ultimate decision and anything else up to and including the latest fence-around-the-Pier debacle.

The group posted a photo of alleged tourists squeezing through a fairly large gap in the fence and accessing the part of the Pier supposed to be closed to visitors. Another post showed a WTSP report highlighting the same issue that also included a period of time in which the fence was just straight up opened.

There’s a July 10 post linking to an op-ed written by Ellen Kirkland in which she said voters are “getting screwed twice” by the city’s current plan because taxpayers would be “first paying for and fighting the court battle against ourselves and then ultimately going to referenda anyway.”

That statement assumes A, that the petition gatherers will get enough signatures to put the issue to voters and, B, that the measure will pass at the ballot box.

All other uphill battles ignored, the question then becomes, will there be the same support for this potential referendum as there was for the effort to kill the Lens.

Ask two different people on either side of the issue and you’ll probably get two different answers. Those hoping to save the inverted pyramid are supremely confident that voters want a say in major waterfront projects. Those who favor Pier Park and moving forward with the process are more likely to say, as the Mayor famously did, people just want to “build a damn Pier.”

Either way, the activity on VoteOnThePier’s Facebook page indicates this could very well be an issue that creates single term Mayors. Kriseman was doomed from the start. If he kept the inverted pyramid he’d piss off a horde of residents who think it’s ugly, outdated and needs to go. If continues supporting the process and moving forward, he’s going to have a whole different group calling for his head as was done on July 15 when a supporter wrote not only that Kriseman needed to go, but also the entire City Council.

VoteOnThePier may have an uphill battle to reach its goal, but it’s quite clear the opposition to Pier Park is not going away anytime soon and, just like in 2013, the issue is going to be dream fodder for reporters and likely a nightmare for City Council.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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