VERIFY: Fact-checking St. Pete's lucrative Pier claim

City leaders say the project will pay for itself in a year. Is that feasible?

ST. PETERSBURG, Florida - On Wednesday evening, the City of St. Petersburg released an economic impact report it commissioned that claimed the new (and controversial) pier district would create $80 million in annual economic impact - "a complete return on investment in the first year of operation," according to a mayor's press release.

However, after 10Investigates questioned some of the report's claims that evening, Mayor Rick Kriseman was "unavailable" for 10Investigates' questions on Thursday, while granting other media outlets' interview requests about the pier.

10Investigates looked into the claims regardless, speaking with City Development Administrator Alan DeLisle, the study's author, Paul Lambert, as well as noted Holy Cross economist Victor Matheson, who agreed to review the report at 10Investigates' request.

DeLisle said the report, which cost the city $19,300, was a common tool the city uses to assist in economic development decisions.  And he suggested the conclusions will help disarm political opponents set on disrupting the process, scheduled for funding and a ground-breaking this summer.

But Matheson questioned many of the assumptions used in the analysis, such as the assumption that more than 200,000 tourists would add an extra night to a Pinellas County visit because of what the pier district will offer.

He said tourists coming to Florida for sunshine and beaches may choose to visit the pier district during their trip, but its not fair to consider their expenditures or hotel stays "new income" since they would likely spend the money in the area anyway even if the pier didn't exist.

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Matheson also questioned some of the assumptions the consultants made regarding comparisons between St. Pete's future pier district and both Chicago's Navy Pier and Santa Monica's pier.

"Who goes to Chicago just for the Navy Pier?"

The Lambert study predicted the new pier district in St. Pete would create 102,000 annual new hotel room nights and 1,080 full-time jobs in Pinellas County.

Matheson did, however, compliment some of the modest assumptions Lambert made regarding the amount tourists and locals alike would spend during a day visiting the pier.

Lambert also said many of the assumptions were conservative, and echoed the city's stance that the recently-increased project scope and budget will produce a major tourist attraction for the region.  But he admitted there was no accounting for "displacement," which is money locals might spend at the new pier instead of other parts of the region, possibly hurting other local businesses.

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Another question about predicting the pier district's impact on St. Pete's economy is whether the planned ticketed events at the venue will displace the economy at other entertainment venues in the city, such as Tropicana Field, the Mahaffey Theater, Al Lang Stadium, and many other local concert venues across St. Petersburg.

The $80 million economic impact would also only produce less than $10 million in taxes per year, lending more skepticism to the claim that the project would pay for itself in the first year of operation. 

At the end of the day, there are too many questions and large assumptions to lend credibility to the city's claim that the new pier district would provide "a complete return on investment in the first year of operation."

Finally, even though most of the decisions about the new pier have already been made, both DeLisle and Ben Kirby, spokesman for Mayor Kriseman, said the timing of the impact report - commissioned earlier this year - had nothing to do with politics.

VERIFY SOURCES:

ST. PETE PIER: Impact analysis

Economist: Victor A. Matheson

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