Residents told "Tony'' Antonious they didn't want to lose the popular pier, so he bought it to keep it out of the hands of developers.
By AMY WIMMER
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 6, 2000
REDINGTON SHORES -- When he campaigned for mayor of Redington Shores, Nashaat "Tony" Antonious found that everyone in town agreed on one issue.
"People told me they didn't want to lose the pier," said Antonious, referring to the 1,021-foot Redington Long Pier that has been a mainstay for 38 years. "I found it was something everybody cared about."
The pier has survived hurricanes and even a bout with a barge, but the death of longtime owner Ernie Torok two years ago left the Redington Shores landmark vulnerable to a more certain fate: redevelopment. While the city and county governments sought grants and other funding sources to buy the Redington Long Pier and keep it open to the public, Antonious feared a deep-pocketed developer with a taste for waterfront condominiums would swoop in and buy the pier.
So Antonious gathered a group of investors, applied for what he admits are some high-interest loans, and even dipped into his children's trust fund accounts. For $1.2-million -- $1.5-million if you count the financing costs -- the pier was his. "It's a priceless project," said Antonious, a financial adviser. "We have to save it, no matter what the price is."
For now, Antonious is running the pier as Torok did, with employees who collect fees from people who want to fish or walk along the pier. But he hopes to establish a non-profit group, complete with volunteers to take money and sell items from the snack bar.
Given the community support behind keeping Redington Long Pier out of the hands of developers, Antonious said, volunteers should be easy to find.
Money collected then will be used not to pay employees, but to pay the mortgage and, eventually, improvements to the pier that will help protect its structural integrity.
Redington Long Pier opened Sept. 28, 1962, after two years of construction. It cost $200,000 to build, and when it opened, the mayor's wife cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony.
Ernie Torok and his wife used to vacation in Redington Shores from their home in Dayton, Ohio. On one visit the pier's owner tried to convince the Toroks to buy the pier. A few weeks later, back in Dayton, the Toroks were back to their old business of training, showing and grooming dogs. One day it was snowing outside, and a poodle snarled at him from the grooming table.
At that moment, the Toroks decided to buy the pier.
"I'm a lucky man," Torok told the St. Petersburg Times in an interview 20 years ago. "I've loved fishing since I was a kid. Now my hobby is my livelihood."
Yet Torok and the pier had rough days ahead. In 1985, Hurricane Elena, which merely brushed Tampa Bay but still destroyed the popular Indian Rocks Pier, caused $10,000 in damage at the Redington Long Pier. Just months later, a barge slammed the landmark broadside, turning the 1,021-foot pier into an 821-footer. It cost about as much to repair it in 1986 as it had to build it in 1962.
Today some consider the Redington to be the best pier in Florida for catching tarpon.
That makes the pier a popular tourist attraction, and folks in Redington Shores urged government officials not to let it slip into the hands of developers. The county's negotiations for the property, however, were unfruitful.
Ellyn Kadel, the county's real estate manager, said: "He paid more for it than we were willing to," Kadel said. But she added that she is still pleased with the outcome of the sale.
"We were never able to come together on price," Kadel said of the county's negotiations with Torok's heirs. "Also, our interest was to see the pier continue to be available to the public, and this gentleman wants to do that, too."
Antonious is now a candidate for County Commission, though he insists he did not buy the pier to earn favor with voters. Tuesday evening, at a Suncoast Tiger Bay Club meeting, former club president Gregory Wilson asked Antonious why he did not step aside and let the county purchase the pier to turn it into a county park.
"The county, the cities, all the beach local governments had many chances to buy the pier. I felt they failed to save the pier," Antonious said that night. "They failed to close the deal, and if I don't step in that moment, somebody else would take it and build a high-rise condo."
Antonious said he signed a contract on buying the pier before he decided to run for the commission, but even if the chronology had been different, he would have purchased it. "I did what I had to do to preserve the pier," Antonious said. "The next step is the repair. At least we have it in hand now. Nobody's going to convert it to condominiums."
That could earn Antonious a spot in Redington Shores' history, with or without being elected to office. There'll be Redington Long Pier Inc., the company that built it. Ernie Torok, who made it famous. And Tony Antonious, who saved it.
-- Times staff writer Edie Gross contributed to this report, which used information from Times files.