Saturday, June 23, 2018
News Roundup

North Pinellas agencies regroup after losing millions in governor veto

Funding to help dredge the Anclote River was one of hundreds of statewide projects Gov. Rick Scott vetoed from the state budget last week, but Tarpon Springs officials aren't taking no for an answer.

The City Commission on Tuesday passed a resolution imploring the governor to restore the $920,000 for the Anclote River the state House and Senate previously approved. Last dredged 17 years ago, the river is impassable in some areas, posing an immediate threat to the $252 million marine commerce and tourism industry that depends on the channel, said City Manager Mark LeCouris.

"The boats are having trouble getting in, and if we lose those boats because they can't get into the river, it's going to devastate the economy," LeCouris said.

North Pinellas county felt a $3.12 million impact from Scott's veto pen, with four major projects slashed from the state budget: $1 million for the Ruth Eckerd Hall expansion; $1 million for Countryside Sports Complex enhancements; $920,000 for the Anclote River dredging; and $200,000 for a special needs playground upgrade at the Long Center. Now the affected agencies are revaluating their agendas, either resigning to look for other funding sources, planning to try again for state money next session or rethinking the projects.

Ruth Eckerd Hall President and CEO Zev Buffman said he was disappointed to lose the state dollars for the performing arts venue but will reapply next legislative session if the $17 million project is not fully funded by then.

The expansion of the 34-year-old, city-owned facility is well underway and nearly paid for. About $5.5 million of upgrades have been completed over the past two years, including the rebuilding of the Murray Theatre, upgrading the kitchen and replacing the heating and air conditioning system. The $2 million second phase, which started last month and is expected to be completed in March, will focus on upgrading the main auditorium and lobby; building additional traffic lanes on the property; repaving the 30 acres; and other exterior renovations.

The Pinellas County Commission awarded $5.5 million in bed tax dollars this year to Ruth Eckerd's expansion, and Buffman said he has raised about $2 million in private donations, leaving about a $2 million shortfall for the third phase.

Slated to begin in 2018, the third phase will expand the lobby from 1,000 square feet to 6,000 square feet, build a cabaret theater to hold free youth performances before the main shows and other infrastructure upgrades.

Buffman said if Ruth Eckerd does not receive state funding next session, he will look towards his "army of private donors" or grants. With the performing arts center expanding its shows, performers and outreach, Buffman said its potential to enrich the community is greater now than ever before.

"We're sad, but we're far from stopped," Buffman said of losing the state funds. "Everyone needs to stay calm. These things happen in life."

Clearwater Parks and Recreation Director Kevin Dunbar said the loss of state funding could force the city to pull back the scope of two ongoing projects.

The city has designed a $5 million upgrade of the Countryside Sports Complex, which helps anchor the city's sports tourism industry by hosting youth soccer, football and lacrosse events, and providing support facilities for major league soccer spring training. With $800,000 of Penny for Pinellas revenue and $1.9 million of county bed tax funds secured, Dunbar said the city must now look for alternative sources or "scale back" the project all together if the budget is not met.

The proposed enhancements include renovating the fields for improved drainage and upgrading the restrooms and concession facilities.

The city also tried to secure $200,000 for upgrades to the Sunshine Limitless Activity Area at the Long Center, a playground area geared toward serving people with special needs. Dunbar also said an addition of a picnic area, exercise trail and lighting upgrades will be cut back if no other funding can be secured.

In Tarpon Springs, officials are eager to move forward on the much-needed dredging of the river to help sustain the commercial boating and fishing industry.

The city has secured a 3-acre spoil site off L & R Industrial Boulevard near Wesley Avenue, which will be used to dump the estimated 82,000 cubic yards of silt that will be dredged out of the river. The $920,000 of state money was going to be used to pay to develop and lease the spoil site over the 40 months it will take to complete the project.

Although it is improbable Scott would reverse his veto of the dredging project, Tarpon Springs Commissioner Jacob Karr said he hopes the city's resolution passed Tuesday will encourage the governor to include the dredging project in the state's new economic development fund, given the river's immense impact on local jobs and commerce.

LeCouris said the city has only $300,000 of Penny for Pinellas funding set aside to temporarily pay for the monthly costs of using the spoil site until state funding is secured. The county has committed to $300,000 of funding to pay the Army Corps of Engineering for permitting and engineering services, but $4 to $5 million of federal funding must still be secured to conduct the dredging, LeCouris said.

"We still haven't lost yet," LeCouris said. "I know it's the ninth inning and we're behind by five or six runs, but we haven't lost yet. We're going to make our point because we believe what we're doing meets everything the governor plans for economic development and jobs. We want the money put back in the budget."

Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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