Wengay Newton, ‘Vote on the Pier’ coalition organize to save landmark

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The verdict is in.  The Lens will replace the current inverted pyramid Pier.  The people have spoken, according to the Pier International Design Competition Jury.

“I don’t like any of the designs,” counters Jan Band, a city resident.  “None of them look hurricane proof to me.  If a penny of my taxes goes into building a new pier, then I should have a vote.”

City councilman Wengay Newton agrees.  “This Pier is an icon.  This is our city skyline.”  He remains the sole voice on the council questioning the wisdom of replacing the Pier.  “Someone has to stand up for the people,” said Newton, who protests the cost, the lack of democracy, and the loss of history.

When the city council first discussed demolishing the Pier at a closed meeting, Newton moved to defer discussion to an evening public meeting to invite citizens to attend.  That motion failed for the lack of a second.  Then Newton moved to let residents vote on a new pier.  That motion also failed for the lack of a second.

Newton is a man who understands history.  “He who is ignorant of history is condemned to repeat it,” he quoted.

Years ago, with no referendum, the city council voted to erect a baseball stadium.  It has evolved from the Suncoast Dome to the Thunderdome and now Tropicana Field.  The Trop has always been substantially funded by taxpayers, according to Newton.  Taxpayers didn’t get to vote on it, yet they currently owe approximately $90 million in bond debt on Tropicana Field.  Property taxes slowly pay it down.

“If you’re paying off a debt, shouldn’t you get to vote on it?” Newton asks rhetorically.  The cost of demolishing the inverted pyramid and constructing a new pier will be again financed by a bond debt owed by the taxpayers over the next quarter century.

Estimates for the Lens Pier run about $50 million, split by the city and the county.  Judging by the history of similar projects, the final cost will likely be higher.

Vote on the Pier is challenging the need to raze the Pier.  Tom Lambdon, a first-time activist, heads the group.  “I have a real issue with the city of St. Petersburg demolishing a world-recognized iconic landmark without the voters’ approval,” he said.  “This is not the Leslie Curran or Mayor Billy Pier.  This Pier belongs to the people of St. Petersburg.”

Lambdon notes that the Pier is 100% leased, employs more than 475, and pumps over $70 million into the local economy.  Lambdon believes that voters, not an elite group of elected and appointed officials, should decide the Pier’s fate.

During the 2010 mayoral campaign, candidate Bill Foster pledged that any Pier change would be put to a vote of the people, according to Lambda.  “He reneged,” Lambdon said.  “A pledge is a promise and a contract.”

Lambdon established his PAC, a political action committee, on Nov. 5, 2010.  He registered Vote on the Pier through the proper channels and hopes to force a referendum offering city voters a final say on the Pier‘s destiny.  So far, a corps of volunteers has collected almost 12,000 signatures from registered voters living in St. Petersburg.  Vote on the Pier needs 15,648 signatures in order to qualify.  Those signatures, at a dime a shot, must be certified by the Supervisor of Elections.

Once the PAC reaches those 15,648 signatures, the city must cease implementing their Pier plans and hold an election.  If the voters choose not to demolish the Pier, the city council must respect their wishes.  According to the city charter, a referendum can only be reversed by an additional referendum.

To sign a petition to put the Pier question on the ballot, download a petition from the internet at www.voteonthepier.com.  The PAC has placed twelve drop boxes around St. Petersburg, including one at the Pier.  For a listing of drop boxes, visit the website.

In addition to collecting signatures, Lambdon is providing voters with an alternative bid.  While the city has already spent approximately $1 million, this $45 million bid from a Bay area LEED certified green architectural firm costs taxpayers nothing.

Lambdon will present the bid at 6 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 11 on the third floor of the Pier.  The bid includes gutting and refurbishing the inverted pyramid, with a new roof and glass, and adding the required new bridge, new pier head, and other features.  The public is invited to the presentation.

This week, Lambdon hopes to present this bid to the county commission.  While the city of St. Petersburg owns the Pier, the county funds half.

Lambdon, a native of St. Petersburg, graduated from Northeast High School.  He lived in the city for 41 years and currently resides in Safety Harbor.  “Ironically, I can’t even vote on the Pier,“ he said.  He’s volunteering to save the Pier because he’s tired of seeing landmarks destroyed unnecessarily.  “It’s irresponsible,” he said, “and not cost effective.”

He calls the Lens “a winding dock to nowhere.  People aren’t stupid.  They’re very smart.  They don’t want promises only for the Pier to end up at twice the original cost.”

Lambdon is passionate about saving the Pier and the democratic process.  “I love it here.  I love St. Petersburg,” he said.  “I love the Pier.  I’m not a Pier hugger.  I’m a realist.  The Pier is a world-recognized iconic landmark.”

To learn more, visit www.voteonthepier.com   Lambdon can be reached at 725-8900, or tom@voteonthepier.com.

— Wendy Risk, SaintPetersBlog correspondent.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.