ST. PETERSBURG - They started in April with a handful of volunteers, a sketch of a downtown waterfront park and the ambitious goal of gathering enough support to put their plan on the November ballot.
On Wednesday, members of Citizens for a New Waterfront Park announced that their objective was within reach. They should have enough signatures by the end of the week to give voters the option of replacing Albert Whitted Airport with a 60-acre park.
The group submitted 21,004 signatures to the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office by Wednesday afternoon. So far, 18,027 of those signatures have been examined and 13,064 have been certified, said Mike Mayo, the office's deputy administrator.
That means roughly seven out of every 10 signatures examined have been ruled valid. The group needs 14,571 by the Sept. 12 deadline to qualify for the ballot.
"At the rate we're processing them, we should know by the end of the week," Mayo said.
The group's effort appeared to be in trouble as recently as last week, after more than 4,000 of the signatures it submitted were ruled invalid. But volunteers have continued to collect signatures.
"When we started this, I heard from many people in many different places - people in city government, people who support the airport - who said there was no way our group could get the 15,000 signatures to put us on the ballot," said Peter Belmont, the group's president. "But we've done that here today."
The waterfront park coalition felt confident enough of its success to hold a news conference Wednesday morning. Four local activists, including council member Jay Lasita, scrawled the ceremonial "last signatures," although the group plans to continue circulating petitions through Friday.
The City Council has already voted to put the option of keeping Albert Whitted on the ballot. It plans to take up the issue of how that referendum should be worded at its meeting today. A public hearing and final vote is scheduled for Sept. 18.
Lasita was the only council member to vote against putting the option of keeping Albert Whitted on the ballot. Lasita said he chose to sign the waterfront park petition because he wants to give citizens a choice at the voting booth this November.
"One side of this issue only required the support of five citizens," Lasita said, referring to the council's vote. "The other side of the debate required the support of 15,000 citizens. I have always felt there should be some equity there."
Tim Clemmons, one of the group's board members, said the faction favoring keeping the airport has had a definite advantage because it didn't have to devote any time to collecting signatures.
"To be honest, we've got to play catchup because we've had to do all this first," he said. Citizens for a New Waterfront Park must now start the next phase of the group's campaign: persuading the public to choose a park over the 74-year-old airport.
Under its plan, half of the land devoted to Albert Whitted would be used for parkland. The remaining 60 acres could not be sold or leased for more than five years without a public referendum, which would prevent the development of condominiums or other housing without voters' approval.
Albert Whitted supporters have stepped up their efforts in recent weeks, distributing bright yellow and black yard signs and bumper stickers. They have also been picketing on city street corners Friday afternoons.
Their message emphasizes the potential price of a new park. The park would cost about $28.8-million, including demolition of the airport, according to a report released last week by the city.
"People are going to have to pay through the nose for something that's not going to be funded by any source other than city taxes," Jack Tunstill, a leading advocate for the airport, said.
But Clemmons said that figure could be offset by federal, state and independent grants.
"There's any number of different resources that we could use," he said.
BALLOT TITLE: Charter amendment requiring waterfront park use for at least one-half of Albert Whitted property.
SUMMARY: Shall the City Charter be amended to require (a) at least one-half of Albert Whitted Airport property become park, including all waterfront to a depth of at least 200 feet; (b) City Council approve by supermajority vote, after full public participation, a plan for the entire property identifying park and, if any, nonpark uses; and (c) the sale or lease for more than five years of any airport property be subject to referendum.