Mayor pushes for switch in Pier operators
By BRYAN GILMER
© St. Petersburg Times,
ST. PETERSBURG -- Looking ahead to a City Council vote that could go either way Thursday, Mayor Rick Baker is campaigning hard in favor of a national company that wants to take over The Pier from the small local firm that has operated it at a loss for years.
Baker is arguing to council members and to the public that switching managers at the popular tourist attraction will save money and make it a more vibrant part of downtown's revival.
"You are maintaining it as a tourist attraction, a community gathering place," Baker said Tuesday in his City Hall office. "If you can do that and reduce the subsidy, that's in the best interest of the city."
Of the eight council members, Chairwoman Rene Flowers said she sees no reason to make changes at The Pier. At least three other council members say they are undecided.
St. Petersburg taxpayers own the tourist attraction over Tampa Bay, and the current management contract expires next month. Urban Retail Properties Co. is best qualified to run The Pier and should take over, the mayor says. He is working to counter a late effort by Pier merchants and others to keep the local business, WHG Management, in charge.
Supporters of WHG -- including many Pier tenants -- are trying to resurrect the one-man firm's chance of staying. A committee of Baker's staff eliminated WHG from consideration after owner William H. Griffith told a city executive committee he cannot reduce The Pier's $1.3-million annual operating loss, an amount taxpayers have to cover.
The committee unanimously recommended Chicago-based Urban, which leases out millions of square feet of upscale retail space. Urban says it can increase the number of visitors to The Pier and cut the subsidy by about $500,000.
"In a tight budgetary environment, I do believe it would be a mistake for the council to walk away from a potential half-million-dollar subsidy reduction," Baker said. "My comfort level is huge with Urban going forward. You have a very large organization with resources around the country they can use to help at The Pier."
Urban would charge a base fee of $135,000 to manage The Pier, with the potential to earn a total of $65,000 more in bonuses for new leases or renewals. It would also get an additional bonus proportional to the amount it reduces the taxpayer subsidy. Griffith wanted to charge $208,000 annually to stay in charge with no incentive to reduce the city's costs.
Baker said he hopes Urban might develop other projects in St. Petersburg after starting with The Pier. Carol Gray owns the Crystal Mirage shop at The Pier and chipped in with other shop owners to pay for a newspaper ad urging people to lobby the council to "Save our Pier." Some small shops there have posted signs that say, "If it ain't broken, why fix it?"
Gray is worried less about how much taxpayers have to pay to keep The Pier open than she is about keeping the attraction's homey, local feel. She fears that atmosphere would change under Urban.
"Here every Wednesday, every Thursday, we have bands," she said, adding that merchants like the job Griffith is doing. "We have hundreds of senior citizens who come. It may not generate a ton of money, but it's for the people; it's for the community."
Flowers declined to meet with Baker. She said she agrees with Gray that things are fine at The Pier under Griffith. Council member John Bryan said he can see both sides of the argument, but he pays attention when Urban says it can save the city so much money: "From the taxpayer side of that, I think that's pretty important."
Members Virginia Littrell, Jay Lasita and Richard Kriseman said they remained undecided Tuesday.
If you go
Shortly after its meeting begins at 2 p.m. Thursday, the St. Petersburg City Council will hear city staffers' recommendation to hire a new company to manage The Pier. At 6 p.m., council members will listen to anyone who wants to speak. They are expected to vote after that. The meeting will be at City Hall, 175 Fifth St. N.
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