Clearwater wants $40 million from the county for a stadium. But there’s not $40 million to give.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times 
St. Lucie Mets outfielder Tim Tebow warms up before the beginning of the Mets at Threshers game at Spectrum Field on Aug. 17, 2017 in Clearwater. 
The city is asking the county for $40 million in bed taxes to renovate the facilities, but projections show the funding is simply not there until after 2020.
DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times St. Lucie Mets outfielder Tim Tebow warms up before the beginning of the Mets at Threshers game at Spectrum Field on Aug. 17, 2017 in Clearwater. The city is asking the county for $40 million in bed taxes to renovate the facilities, but projections show the funding is simply not there until after 2020.
Published June 20 2018
Updated June 21 2018

CLEARWATER —The city’s proposed $79.7 million overhaul of the Philadelphia Phillies’ spring training facilities depends on getting $40 million in bed taxes from Pinellas County.

But records show even if county officials wanted to bankroll the Phillies facilities upgrades, the funding is simply not there until after 2020.

The deal signed earlier this month states that if the city does not obtain the county’s $40 million commitment, plus a $13.7 million state grant, by Dec. 31 then the team could drop the project and walk away from its pledge to play in Clearwater for another 20 years. The Phillies’ contract expires in 2023.

The problem is that the Pinellas County Tourist Development Council’s capital program — funded by a 6 percent bed tax on hotels and motels — has already committed to pay $99.8 million through 2020 to six new and three ongoing projects.

By the time those commitments are paid, the fund will have only $6.3 million remaining by the end of 2020, according to county projections — far less than what Clearwater will need to keep the Phillies.

"We can’t keep up these levels of contributions every year," said County Commissioner Ken Welch, who chairs the TDC. "At this point we’re not really in spending mode."

The County Commission is required to approve conceptual plans for stadiums and spring training facilities before the application can move to the TDC for review. It is expected to discuss Clearwater’s application in July.

The TDC process can take 30 to 90 days before the plans go back to the county commission for final approval, said Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater Chief Operating Officer Tim Ramsberger.

Ramsberger said it would be possible for the county to commit $40 million to the Phillies project this year under the terms that Pinellas doesn’t have to pay anything until after 2020.

But whether the Phillies would be open to that is unclear.

The team’s Florida operations director, John Timberlake, could not be reached for comment Wednesday about the new TDC projections.

But in an interview earlier this month with the Tampa Bay Times, he said the team is willing to work with the city if efforts to secure funding stretch past Dec. 31.

Asked what the team would do if the county denies the funding, Timberlake said "that’s not really for me to speculate."

Renovation plans at the Carpenter Complex, which houses four training fields, include building a 160-bed dormitory to house staff and players. The complex is also slated for renovations to its clubhouse and office space, minor league food services, and player support facilities.

Proposed upgrades for Spectrum Field include expanded office space, more workout and training space, a team dining area and a climate-controlled club level.

Recipients of bed tax money must show a direct impact on tourism, Welch said, so it’s unclear if using the money for bed taxes can even be used for improvements such as the dormitories and dining hall.

Bed taxes have been used to pay for capital projects over the years, including Tropicana Field and the Salvador Dalí Museum.

But in 2015 the commission created new guidelines that allow 60 percent of bed taxes to be dedicated to tourism marketing and operations while 40 percent go to capital projects.

In 2017, the Commission awarded its first round of funds under the new formula: $26 million for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium; $6 million for the Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement; $5.5 million for Ruth Eckerd Hall; $1.9 million for the Countryside Sports Complex; and $495,000 for the Eddie C. Moore Softball Complex.

In April the county awarded $41.7 million to Dunedin for renovations of the Toronto Blue Jays’ facilities.

Ramsberger said the timing is also a variable. The TDC is currently revising the 2015 guidelines to strengthen economic impact standards. Those changes will be voted on in the next two months.

The TDC is slated to open its next capital funding cycle for applications in the fall, ideally when those guidelines are updated, Ramsberger said.

"Refinement has been the name of the game," he said. "How can we make this process better? And this is one example where we’ve got a large ask during that (revision period)."

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

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