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Pinellas tourism panel wants more time to study Dali Museum funding request

Salvador Dali Museum leaders made their best pitch Wednesday for $5 million in hotel tax money to complete a new building under construction on the St. Petersburg waterfront.

They left empty-handed, at least for now.

Members of the Pinellas County Tourist Development Council, or TDC, named a subcommittee to look into how the grant might result in cuts to other activities funded by the tax. Several voiced concerns about reducing advertising that promotes Pinellas to potential visitors in big feeder markets.

"I don't like making decisions without all the facts," Clearwater City Council member Carlen Petersen said. "I'd need a lot more information."

The new $36 million museum under construction near the Mahaffey Theater is scheduled to open in January 2011. All but $6 million has been raised from federal, state, city and private funding. But money for the project will run out this spring without a new source of funds.

"We're in the eighth inning of a baseball game," said Tom James, president of the museum board and CEO of Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg. "We've got to score some runs in the eighth or ninth inning."

The museum will be forced to take out loans using art from the Dali collection as collateral if the tax dollars or new contributions don't come through soon, he said.

By law, revenue from the 5 percent tax on commercial lodging is supposed to support advertising, events and, in some cases, facilities that stimulate more tourism.

The Dali attracts 200,000 visitors annually, 90 percent from outside Pinellas. With national and international publicity of the new museum opening, attendance should double next year and remain near 300,000 after that, museum director Hank Hine said.

Moving out of the current museum, an old marine warehouse, is critical to protecting the collection valued at $300 million to $500 million, James said. The new structure with 18-inch-thick concrete walls is designed to withstand a Category 5 hurricane.

Hine asked the TDC to commit to a $5 million contribution and let staffers recommend a lump-sum payment or financing the grant over as many as 20 years.

But panel members refused to make a quick decision. With fewer tourists making overnight visits and hotel rates down, tax proceeds dropped 8 percent to $23.5 million for the year ending Sept. 30. They fell more steeply in October and November.

The board cut advertising spending 10.5 percent to $7.4 million for the current year. Members also slashed funding for arts organizations and sports events.

Coming off a horrible week due to cold weather and heading into an uncertain year, tourism businesses could get stung by reduced advertising, said Russ Kimball, a 20-year TDC member and general manager of the Sheraton Sand Key Resort on Clearwater Beach.

"I think we're sitting here very nervous, trying to protect our industry and employees," he said.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Pinellas tourism panel wants more time to study Dali Museum funding request 01/13/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 13, 2010 10:51pm]
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