Wednesday was a big day for Rick Kriseman.
Joined by Assistant Mayor Kanika Tomalin, City Councilmembers Darden Rice, Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, Ed Montanari, and Karl Nurse, as well as other officials, the mayor took part in a groundbreaking ceremony for the new St. Petersburg Pier, a major symbolic event for a project that has become a huge political issue.
“It was really important that we fulfill the desires of the community from the standpoint of functionality, but do it within budget, and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” said Kriseman.
Construction has already begun, with the over-water construction scheduled to begin this fall, with a planned opening in early 2019.
That’s later than what the mayor promised on the campaign trail four years ago — something Rick Baker noted during the first mayoral debate Tuesday night.
“He committed that the Pier would be built by 2015, and we have a groundbreaking tomorrow,” he said sarcastically, after noting that there was “nothing like a political campaign to stimulate a lot of groundbreakings.”
Baker also says that Kriseman failed in his commitment to select a design that was the consensus of the public, which he said was Destination St. Pete, which did emerge as a clear favorite in the city’s online survey two years ago, receiving support from more than 60 percent of respondents (there was also the Alma project by Alfonso Architects of Tampa).
Instead, a committee created by Kriseman went with Pier Park, whose design eliminated the former inverted pyramid and intends to offer fishing, marine education, dining, cycling and walking along the waterfront, picnic areas, kids play area and flexible event space.
In this campaign season, plenty of people are questioning the increased costs of the new design, now at $66 million with another $14 million in the offing, dependent on Pinellas County Commission approval.
At Tuesday’s debate, one audience member challenged Kriseman directly on why he was spending so much money on the Pier, and not on more pressing city needs, such as sewage.
Kriseman explained — just as others involved with the process have had to tell critics — the money earmarked for the Pier comes from Tax Incremental Finance (TIF) funds from the downtown area. TIF money must be spent in that area, and not on other projects.
The saga of the Pier has been developing for more than a decade , reaching full meltdown status four years ago, when citizens rejected “The Lens” design put on the August 2013 ballot.
It was a campaign issue that Kriseman used like a cudgel against then-incumbent Mayor Bill Foster, something Baker noted Tuesday when he said Kriseman “won partially on the Pier … his election … because a lot of people didn’t like the Lens.”
Nearly every resident of St. Pete has an opinion on the Pier, as was made clear in 2013. Those watching local television Wednesday night saw extensive coverage of the groundbreaking, and most of that coverage was positive.
“You can’t have enough restaurants around the water,” Zee Knight told WFTS-ABC 28. “It’s the perfect place for all of that to happen. It can’t happen quick enough.”
“We’re in budget. Despite what some would say, the Pier is in budget,” WTSP 10 News quoted Kriseman. “The uplands project is in budget. How often do you hear that on a government project? But that’s exactly where we’re at right now.”
“St. Petersburg city leaders broke ground June 28 on the new Pier, finally moving forward with construction on a project that some feared would never get started,” wrote Bay News 9 reporter Trevor Pettiford on the station’s website.
“Not everybody owns a boat, not everybody lives on the water, but the pier is in place where anyone, no matter where they live in the city, can have access to the water and go fishing or just sit out there and look out at the water and enjoy being on the water in our beautiful city,” Kriseman said at Tuesday’s debate about why he believes it’s important for the city to have an iconic structure.
On that, he and Baker agree.
Being an incumbent has its advantages; for Kriseman, Wednesday’s event was definitely one of them. And it wasn’t the only bit of good news received that day.
The current mayor awoke to news of a new poll putting him within five percentage points of Baker, a major improvement from an earlier poll conducted just a month ago, which showed him trailing the former mayor by double digits.