Pier referendum takes over St. Pete primary election

08/27/13 Janelle Irwin
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Voters in St. Pete are heading to the polls Tuesday to narrow the field of mayoral candidates down to two as well as decide whether or not to build the new Pier known as the Lens. Three mayoral candidates are meeting with voters to earn some last minute support.

Candidates Kathleen Ford and incumbent Bill Foster showed up at the Coliseum in downtown where they weighed in on their differing opinions of the Lens.

“It’s such a shame that $3.8 million has been wasted on that Lens because it looks like that’s going to be defeated and I just think all those folks who lost their jobs out at the Pier and what a darn shame that Bill Foster fired them all.”

“For people that think it has to be all restaurant, HVAC and retail – that’s a model that we’ve had for thirty years that we’ve subsidized millions of dollars over the years. We can’t continue to do that.”

Foster has consistently been criticized by two of his opponents, Ford and Rick Kriseman, about his change in stance on the Lens. Foster eventually came out in favor of letting voters decide what to do. Despite that decision, he voted to move forward with the Lens. A supporter of the new Pier design, Shirley O’Sullivan, responded to a claim by Foster that the pro-Lens campaign got a late start.

“But, we did have an influx of some young professionals, Leadership St. Pete and a lot of sponsors and business people in the community have come forward. So, we’ve had an extra push the last few weeks which I think is going to carry us to victory in the end.”

O’Sullivan also worried about the implications of a complicated ballot. The referendum asks voters whether or not the city should cancel its contract with Michael-Maltzan Architecture. A yes vote means the city has to go back to the drawing board while no means planning for [the Lens]9http://www.stpete.org/TheLens/) will continue. But any confusion to voters could go either way. At a polling place in South St. Pete’s Pinellas Point neighborhood, Sherry Sutrich with the group Stop the Lens was making sure voters knew the difference.

“It’s very confusing and that’s why we’re trying to get the word out to vote yes to stop the Lens. That’s very confusing to people.”

Sutrich has been fighting the Lens since the city chose the design after a lengthy process involving a task force, an international competition and multiple public forums.

“…to where the task force recommend 26,000 square feet of air conditioned space out there. There’s none. That’s just one issue. People want restaurants and shops out there. And locals say, well I never go to the Pier. Well, tourists go to the Pier. It’s a tourist attraction.”

And at the Coliseum, outgoing city council member Leslie Curran donned a sky blue shirt urging voters to say ‘no’ to the referendum. Curran was on the Pier task force and has consistently voted during meetings to move forward with the process. Some critics of the Lens have argued it’s a waste of city money, but Curran reminds that money is for replacing the Pier.

“That money, $50 million, was earmarked for this project. If, for some reason, it stops, it will still stay there as we go forward with, hopefully what procedure – I don’t know. I know there’s a committee that’s been looking at options to do that, but I do believe that moving forward is the best thing for the entire city.”

The decision is expected to be a close one. A poll conducted by St. Pete Polls for Saint Petersblog shows that 56% of voters will vote to cancel the contract to build the Pier. Back in Pinellas Point, Nora Coles was one of those who oppose the Lens.

“I like the design of the Pier and if it needs to be different, than fine, but I don’t currently favor the Lens. I just don’t think that it is eye appealing.”

Coles also voted for Rick Kriseman for Mayor. He greeted her and other voters in the early morning hours at Pinellas Community Church in South St. Pete where two precincts cast ballots. Kriseman said he thought he’d be nervous, but isn’t.

“I think that my team has done everything that we can do for today to prepare to get us to this point. I feel like my message and my vision for moving the city forward is resonating. So, I’m very optimistic going into today.”

There are five candidates for mayor on the Primary ballot. Foster, Ford and Kriseman are joined by Paul Congemi and Anthony Cates. When the polls close tonight, two will move on to the General Election on November 5th. Both Ford and Kriseman are Democrats running on progressive issues like community policing in minority communities. Rusty Smart, who voted from the Coliseum, said he chose Kriseman over Ford despite their similarities.

“Particularly Mr. Kriseman’s records on marriage equality and his views on LGBT issues – that was a strong guider for me.”

But just minutes after him, downtown resident Joshua Paez cast his ballot for Ford. If Kriseman defeats her today though, he’ll side with Kriseman.

“The bottom line is, I’ll never be able to consciously vote for a Republican and feel good about myself. So, I had two candidates left and I went with the one that I felt most closely aligned with my belief in life in general.”

Outside the Coliseum, both Foster and Ford had supporters waving signs to passing motorists. Robert Newton voted for incumbent Mayor Bill Foster.

“I think he’s done a good job and I look forward to another term for him.”

Voters in districts 4, 6 and 8 will choose a city council member.

Candidates in district four are: Richard Eldridge, Carolyn Fries, David Mckalip and Darden Rice.

District six: Trevor Mallory, incumbent Karl Nurse and Sharon Russ.

And in district eight candidates are: Robert Davis, Alex Duensing, Amy Foster and Steve Galvin.

According to the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections, 30,000 mail-in ballots had already been turned in out of 60,000 requested. There are 160,000 registered voters in the city. Polls close at 7:00 p.m. this evening. A list of polling places is on the Supervisor's website.

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