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Council questions Tampa Bay Watch’s ‘winter wonderland’

Mark Parker

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City Council heard reports that nonprofit organization Tampa Bay Watch is conducting a holiday sunset tour from the Pier (pictured), in violation of the terms of its lease. Photo by Mark Parker.

St. Petersburg City Council discussed the Tampa Bay Watch Pier lease Thursday, its marine research vessel and a review of commercial slip regulations following reports the nonprofit is conducting prohibited commercial activities.

Councilmember Robert Blackmon requested the hearing at Thursday’s  meeting after receiving an advertisement for a “winter wonderland boat tour” held aboard Tampa Bay Watch’s research vessel. Blackmon noted previous friction between commercial Pier tenants and the nonprofit organization, when the city approved its lease earlier this year. The lease stipulated the research vessel is just one component of Tampa Bay Watch’s educational activities and would not be a standalone commercial enterprise.

“Our worst fears have kind of come true,” said Blackmon.

Blackmon said the advertisement described a floating winter wonderland where guests can enjoy a holiday sunset cruise on a festively decorated eco-vessel. Blackmon said the activity has no bearing on research or education.

“It’s a commercial business masquerading as a nonprofit,” said Blackmon. “And we’ve already heavily subsidized, as Councilmember (Darden) Rice pointed out in the past, the eco-science center out there for $5 a year.

“At some point, we need to reel it in because we’ve given this mouse way too many cookies.”

Blackmon said he firmly supports Tampa Bay Watch and its mission, but anyone would be inclined to take advantage of city council when given repeated opportunities. Blackmon said he would like to hear from his colleagues and air the grievance in a public forum before deciding on a motion on how to proceed.

Several former and current charter boat captains then spoke to the unfairness of Tampa Bay Watch operating a competing commercial vessel at a significantly lower price point. The speakers added the Pier cannot financially support more than one commercial vessel in each category, and Tampa Bay Watch could put strictly commercial operations out of business. The speakers also noted that Tampa Bay Watch skipped over 20 businesses waiting for commercial slips at the Pier.

“This is a big deal,” stated Rice following the public forum.

Rice said it seems the city is enabling unfair and potentially illegal competition to private businesses. She said she was contemplating a motion to issue a cease and desist letter to Tampa Bay Watch’s vessel until it comes into accordance with the original agreement. Blackmon said that is a motion he would second.

Legal representation said the city council would have to create a motion asking the administration to issue the cease and desist letter. In addition to that motion, Councilmember Gina Driscoll said she would like a staff report from Chris Ballestra, managing director of development for the city. Blackmon told Driscoll he would second that motion as well.

Councilmember Brandi Gabbard said she also supports taking swift action on the matter and requested a report to city council in January.

“I don’t want this to linger,” she added.

Blackmon said he feels caught between a rock and a hard place on the issue and reiterated Rice’s statements on federal dollars subsidizing the dock and local funds paying for Tampa Bay Watch’s operation of the discovery center. He said government subsidies potentially funding commercial operations make him uncomfortable and believes the organization could jeopardize its nonprofit status.

“I don’t think anyone is anti-Tampa Bay Watch,” explained Blackmon. “They’ve come in here, they’ve presented here, they’re good people and they’ve done good work. But this has kind of gotten out of control.

“I don’t know what scientific benefit a winter wonderland has towards our bay.”

The city council passed the motion unanimously, with Councilmember Lisa Wheeler-Bowman absent.

 

 

 

 

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Mike Connelly

    December 18, 2021at4:41 pm

    End e scooters …. groups of 20 30 speed through DTSP ON SIDEWALKS at 30mph

    2 words for city of STPETE

    Morgan (and) Morgan

  2. Avatar

    Rose Hayes

    December 26, 2021at10:16 pm

    Please act promptly on Tampa Bay Watch. There was fear that they would violate their nonprofit status. Reign them In please.

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