Pier Park – A Never Ending Taxpayer Money Pit

St. Pete Taxpayers - Welcome to your $1 million annual landscaping fee on Pier Park!

St. Pete Taxpayers – Welcome to your greater than  $1.5 million annual subsidy to landscaping fees and other costs on Pier Park!

There is an old saying in the boating community about the two happiest days in the life of a boat owner. The two happiest days in a boat owner’s life are when they first get the boat and when they finally sell the boat.  The same is likely to be true of the emerging taxpayer boondoggle known as “Pier Park” in St. Petersburg – taxpayers will be happiest when they get rid of it, but likely even happier if they never buy it in the first place!  The aging inverted pyramid pier is ready for upgrade and the over-water roadway to it is too unsafe for cars. City insiders had originally tried to force “the Lens” on citizens, but it was overwhelmingly rejected by a vote in August 2013.  Now a hand-picked government-created committee has ignored the polled preference of St. Petersburg citizens and instead endorsed the creation of “Pier Park” as the replacement.  An analysis of the documents used by the committee reveals that this is the most expensive of all proposals. The cost will not end with the at least $33 million to build (taxpayer money) or the millions in design fees or the $5 million on interest payments by taxpayers. But it and will cost taxpayers more every year in subsidies than the current Pier and all other proposals on the table.

pier park ribbons_large

Only big government types with unending tax funds and overspending addictions would approve a massive set of four story ribbons over the storm-ridden saltwater of Tampa Bay.

High Annual Maintenance Costs

The current inverted pyramid pier required an average of $1.4 million in taxpayer dollars every year (over 15 years) as a subsidy.  So taxes were used to keep it up and running and maintained. The Pier Park is basically a huge landscaping project over the choppy, storm-ridden salt water of Tampa Bay. There will be a small restaurant and a large public concert space totaling 41,00 square feet of sod at the end of the pier.  There will be soil 3-4 feet deep in large landscape projects spread along the pier in an elevated platform above the water over much of its length. There will be floating docks with filtering systems to create “clean” Tampa Bay water for 12 inches of wading at the end. There would be building size fabric ribbons to provide shade that will be subject to intense conditions and likely fail. All of this will be very costly.  In fact, the Pier Working Group hired an independent consultant (Skanska) to evaluate all eight candidates and look at the structural features and costs.  They put it this way in their 1/16/15 report:

“The Pier Park’s potential subsidy would likely exceed the other competitors, and that of the existing inverted pyramid, due to expense projections. It is therefore ranked highest in terms of projected annual subsidy.”


“…would likely have the highest operating costs for reasons including higher utilities, security and janitorial to support the extensive activity “platforms”.

They went on to say about this about the cost of Pier Park “…the cost to maintain the pier [Pier Park] outweighing the revenue potential…”. They point to the high landscaping costs.

 The total square footage of the park is much larger than the existing and will require more maintenance in order to keep up with the overall cleanliness of the project. Servicing the event lawn at the pier head may prove to be difficult during events. In the harsh wind and salt water environment, the fabric strip canopy at the inverted pyramid may become a problem to maintain over a long period of time. Because of the high wave action, all of the floating docks will need to be replaced within 75 years. The water lounge is a safety and maintenance concern. The current depiction of the net railing along the pier is of concern, both from a life safety, vehicular traffic, and maintenance aspect.”

Cost Overruns Expected for Construction

The independent reviewers also felt that it was highly unlikely that Pier Park would be built within the designated $33 million construction budget. Ther is a “low probability” of getting under budget without altering the design in significant ways. Here is what they said:

Given its grand objectives, the Pier Park concept creates potential schedule and cost overrun concerns. The estimate was under represented in numerous areas leading this concept to be more than 15% over budget, with a low probability of getting within budget without compromising design intent or losing program elements. Multiple program elements would need to be eliminated in order to get back within budget. The project as depicted would also be difficult to achieve within the required schedule, causing additional project labor charges.” 

Safety and Environmental Concerns

The Pier Park would also have safety issues.  The independent review expressed concerns about safety of net railings and the water lounge.

The water lounge is a safety and maintenance concern. The current depiction of the net railing along the pier is of concern, both from a life safety, vehicular traffic, and maintenance aspect.”

This exposes taxpayers to paying the costs of lawsuits against the city for poorly planned and executed safety precautions when people are injured on the floating docks and from falling off the pier.

Further, the Independent review expressed concerns about the environmental impact and difficulties in expanding the current footprint of the pier. An additional 5,000 square feet will be added above the current pier footprint. There were concerns that permitting would be difficult for environmental reasons. Here is what the independent reviewer stated:

“Environmental Permit Analysis and Marine Considerations. The Pier Park concept increases the overwater area in relation to the existing pier and could be considered an increase in environmental impact. Areas of proposed fill for breakwater seems to impact to sea grasses and may also cause impacts to water circulation. The lower fishing areas would alleviate concerns related to endangered species. The location of the eastern most boat docking facility could present a problem for fire and emergency vehicle access.  The location and number of boat slips will present permitting challenges. It is not clear whether the view-shed areas exceed the current pier, which could require a variance from Pinellas County. The size of the over-water assembly may be considered a non-water dependent use which could further complicate the permitting. Fire egress for the large assembly occupancies will need to be carefully analyzed. The size and area of overwater coverage presents challenges to the permitting of this concept, which ultimately may not be permittable.

Significant design modifications would seem to be required in order to provide assurance of environmental permitting.”

In response to these concerns, the Pier Park Designers have cut back their plans by about $2 million but the original designs were used by the Pier Working Group to make their selection – to the chagrin of some who oppose the plan and cried foul.

Taxpayers Stuck With Big “Progressive”  Bill Again

So the city insiders are supporting the most expensive project to build what will require the highest cost to maintain every year. They expect the taxpayers to pay for it and ignore the fact that there will be very little business conducted on the pier by private entities. They have a vision for a massive park over the stormy salt waters of Tampa Bay.  For some reason, the massive St. Pete waterfront park system is not enough! This is a taxpayer boondoggle in the making.  There will be endless cost overruns and massive annual subsidies. There will be even more city workers hired to run the new massive over-water park. All of these city workers will require higher pay and benefits than most citizens of the city –  special pension and health benefit plans that are not currently funded and are threatening the city with bankruptcy already.

Welcome to the “Progressive” vision of St. Pete where, as they say, we “move forward”.  Citizens should come out in large numbers and oppose this plan, call for an end to a taxpayer funded pier and call for a long term lease to allow a private company to build something that will truly serve residents while costing them absolutely nothing in tax dollars.



9 Replies:

  1. Leonard Schmiege

    In the first paragraph, you state, “The aging inverted pyramid pier is ready for upgrade and the over-water roadway to it is too unsafe for cars.” As far as I know the pier roadway is not unsafe, it was closed by Mayor Foster essentially for no practical reason. (Perhaps to advance the appearance that it is condemned.) As far as I can tell from public reports, there may be several years left before the bridge would have to be closed to cars for safety reasons. This means that 100% of the parking revenue generated on the pier approach has been forfeited for no reason. However, there has been a nice side benefit. Walking and biking, on the approach without vehicle noise can now be a serene experience. The worst culprit was the trolley itself, as it was a very loud diesel bus. I hope the new pier has transit to the end and quiet electric vehicles would be perfect. (Note: Heavy trucks have been required to use the middle extra reinforced bridge lane for years)

  2. Joe Wareham

    Want to see a money pit, check the multi-million dollar bike path they are building along the south side of the Bayway. Given it’s bike path’s potential usefulness, makes the cost of Pier Park look like chump change.

    1. Tom

      The new Bayway bridge is another project that should be looked at, too late to save much money but as a learning tool to avoid future waste.

      This was part of President Obama’s economic stimulus that did not make the cut. Gov Rick Scott found money for this after the Obama administration denied funding because it was not a priority. A useful bridge was demolished despite its having decades of useful life.

      The economic report used to justify this expense counted the few minutes saved by not waiting for the drawbridge as having 341.6 millions dollars of value and producing 2,000 jobs. Now that it’s built we can see if that projection was accurate.

      A fraction of the cost of this bridge could have repaired the old bridge. We also could have used these funds to start Bus Rapid Transit from the beach to downtown and the airport. Without a new sales tax.


  3. John Urish

    Is there any means to require a performance bond to insure that the project is completed at the contract price, and to the contract specifications, and within the specified time period. Also, the contract should have specified draws and a holdback in order that the taxpayers can complete the job if the contractor bails.

    I have always been amazed that the governmental agencies are continually faced with completion and quality problems for projects that are essentially basic time, labor, material elements (i.e. the Tampa water reservoir project and the desalination project, etc.). As a former builder…just saying.

  4. Keir

    Sell the stinking pier for $1.00. If private money can’t make it work why on earth does anybody think gov’t can do it. The city lies about the condition of the pier saying it’s built on wood pilings, so is Venice and it’s lasted 1000 years.

    1. Tom

      The existing Pier can be sold or leased to a private investor. They would need to build a new bridge and upgrade the pyramid.

      It is said to be worth $35 million.

      The downside would be the loss of public access. We would need to pay to use our pier. If the Pier Park project gets bogged down we may lose the pier anyway.

      The benefit would be the continuation of an “iconic” image to represent the city but at no cost to the taxpayer. And the money saved could build many of the proposed features on existing parkland at much lower cost.

      Permits would not be an issue since they would be for a reduced footprint and increased viewshed without having to justify a public interest in building over water when acres of parkland are available.

      A win- win.

      1. Tom

        If no one bids on this it will serve as a reality check on the economic prospect of the Pier Park. The city could repair and upgrade the pier and and replace the bridge and lower the cost of the subsidy.

        It could be operated as a park and public meeting space or aquarium.

  5. Tom D

    Sometimes is seems as though the government appointed group charged with leading this project is disconnected with the public and every day lives of the people who live here. Maybe a native resident who would actually fish from the pier or has young kids and would like to actually take them to the pier, etc. could prove to be good feedback. Consider a regular person with a regular job with a regular savings account, etc. for good public perception. Maybe this government appointed group ( I am sure all good people ) are simply living a different lifestyle than the every day resident who will be voting on the Pier. Not sure, but may this concept could help mend the bridge towards a successful Pier? Another idea is to partner with private business such as Hooter’s and Starbucks and use their huge understanding of public perception and piggy back on a success plan they bring to the table while establishing additional investors, revenue and anchors businesses that attract both locals and tourists. Run a air conditioned tram from the parking lot to the pier and just build a emergency access approach that can also be used for bikes/walkers. This would make the Pier a destination for all on a regular basis. The biggest problem with this plan…. it would be packed non stop and you would have to run another tram from parking lot 2 to keep up with the amount of visitors. Real estate 101. Give them a reason to go their again and again. Not just once to walk around and look in the water? Residents in St Pete can already take a walk and look in the water. We can do better than that.

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