Pinellas tourist council: Spend no more than 40 percent of bed tax cash on capital projects
CLEARWATER -- A day before the St. Petersburg City Council was set to discuss the future of the Tampa Bay Rays, Pinellas County's tourism board convened to have its say on how much tourist tax money might be available for capital projects such as a new baseball stadium.
The Tourist Development Council voted unanimously Wednesday to recommend that the County Commission set a 40 percent cap on spending for capital projects. With that cap, about $19 million of the $48 million in bed tax dollars projected to be collected next year would be available for professional or amateur stadiums, aquariums, museums and the like. (The commission voted earlier this year to increase the five percent tax to six percent effective Jan. 1. Each percent is projected to raise about $8 million).
The move comes as no surprise -- the council is composed mostly of tourist industry professionals who have been pushing the 40 percent cap for months. Another proposal favored by Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, both of whom sit on the tourist council, would set a 50 percent cap.
But that wasn't the crux of the discussion when the council met Wednesday. Instead, Cretekos and Kriseman, who was out of town and sent a letter and representative Sally Everett, voiced concerns about language in the plan that "a minimum of 60 percent" would be spent on marketing by Visit St. Pete-Clearwater and a "maximum of 40 percent" on capital projects.
"If we set a maximum of 40 percent, that could mean 0, that could mean 1 percent, and he felt that was too restrictive," Everett said. Kriseman suggested alternate wording that said 40 percent "may" be used for capital projects.
Other members said the language allows for up to 40 percent for capital projects and protects VSPC's marketing budget.
"Unfortunately a lot of the rhetoric seems to be 40 percent is just not enough," said Indian Rocks Beach Mayor R.B. Johnson. "Every bit of that 40 percent is going to be used, I think we all know that. That 60 percent needs to be concrete because it will start getting eroded away otherwise. There's nothing flexible about (capital) debt and we're going to find ourselves saddled in such a way that we're not ready for an emergency, whether it's a dip in the economy or a hurricane."
Cretekos countered with the familiar argument.
"I keep hearing that the (tourism) industry wins with this, but understand that it's the local governments that have to come up with the infrastructure that helps you win," Cretekos said. "That is really my concern, that when people keep coming to Clearwater Beach, for example, and complain to me about the traffic, they don't look to the industry to improve the roads, to provide the water and sewer. They look to the cities. And as we try to provide other venues to attract people to the area, it's more than just hotels they look to. We have to makes sure that when they come we can accommodate them not only with hotel rooms but also with activities so they come back."
Despite his reservations, Cretekos voted for the plan anyway after County Commissioner John Morroni, who chairs the tourism council, pleaded with him to make it a unanimous recommendation to bring to commissioners.
Morroni said the commission will likely consider the plan next month.