The City of St. Petersburg has embarked on a project to replace the aging pier, the inverted pyramid, with a new iconic structure. Many long time St. Pete Residents have grown attached to the pyramid while many others are still complaining about the odd geometry planted on our waterfront so many years ago.
A better pier project would result if the rights to the pier were sold to a private developer with some requirements for valuable public access. The taxpayers could avoid about $150 million in debt and taxes, endless subsidies, politicization of the project and would ensure the best pier project for all. City Council should place a referendum on the ballot to sell the pier in this manner.
Now a grand vision from a committee has been selected as the final design: the “Lens”. The city has gone through the standard public process. It offered a prize of $50,000 to each of three finalists from a broader pool of finalists. It created a blue ribbon panel of local leaders to pick what they liked best. They have allotted $50 million for the project, of which only about $45 million will be used for actual construction and the rest toward financing and administration. What is of great concern is that the $45 million is only the amount to pay for phase I. A more functional phase II would cost an estimated ADDITIONAL $100 million!
So where does the $50 million come from (not to mention the other $100 million)? The taxpayers of St. Petersburg are going to be required, without a vote, to pay the interest and fees on a $50 million loan to the city to finance it. That means that taxpayers will have to pay of the loan (a bond) and the interest. The city will take out the loan based on future tax collections its thinks it can get from future property values. This is called Tax Increment Finance Zone (TIF) funding and has been criticized by many. The Sun Beam Times described such financing in the past.
There is a better way to get a new pier (or refurbish the old one) and not have the taxpayers spend a penny! It is time to sell the pier! That is right, find a private company that wants to put up the capital and let them buy it. There could be conditions to require some public use. For instance, one side of the approach could be an overwater park with fishing. The first and top floor could be required to be public access or city controlled property with leases and open access. There are many ways to ensure public access. There are many advantages of allowing a private interest to develop the pier:
- The Taxpayers would not have to pay for a $50 million or more likely a $150 million loan.
- The pier could be developed in ways that MAKE SENSE for users of such a structure.
- The public would have a great asset that would have community buy-in since every smart business makes sure that it offers things the public wants (that is how they stay in business).
- It de-politicizes the pier. No more committees and politicians arguing over the “Lens” or the “wave” etc. Our elected officials should be spending their time solving the city’s over spending and over taxation problems.
- It removes the subsidies that city pays to the pier every year. That will further save tax dollars.
This proposal to sell the pier means embracing true free market principles and giving up on another round of sure-to-fail central economic planning. No small group of so called “experts” is capable of properly planning a financially sound and broadly appealing project at this scale.
Following a plan like this would require a little courage in the city council. They would have to put an item on the ballot to let the citizens allow a long term lease or sale of the pier. It is time for the city to start thinking out of the box. It is time for the city to give up on its grand vision of another white elephant project. It is time to let the market produce a great project for St. Pete and some much needed tax and debt relief for the hard working taxpayers of the city. When our city leaders realize the time has come for a common sense solution for the pier, then the city will start to enter an era of growth and prosperity rather than stagnation and struggle.