TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners voted Wednesday to spend $1 million in tourist development tax money to promote the area during the Republican National Convention.
The idea, commission Chairman Ken Hagan said, is to "capitalize on hosting this once-in-a-lifetime event" while the eyes of the world are on Tampa Bay.
That includes spending $400,000 to help throw a big welcome party in St. Petersburg. The convention hasn't announced it yet, but Pinellas County officials have said this will be a party for up to 15,000 journalists and 5,600 delegates at Tropicana Field.
And if it seems curious for Hillsborough to help pick up the tab for a party in Pinellas, consider this twist: The St. Petersburg venue is expected to feature "Tampa-specific decor, themes and staging," the re-creation of a Gasparilla parade and Hillsborough theme park entertainers, according to Hillsborough records.
So: Money from Hillsborough goes to a party in Pinellas to be decorated to look like Tampa.
What does the mayor of St. Petersburg think of this?
"We welcome Hillsborough County's money," Mayor Bill Foster said. "As long as somebody else is footing the bill and paying the cost of the facility's use, they can have any kind of themed event they want."
Foster noted that St. Petersburg has not committed a penny of taxpayers' money for the welcome party, which Pinellas officials say is scheduled for Aug. 26, the eve of the four-day convention.
In Hillsborough, the only commissioner to have any heartburn over the idea was Kevin Beckner.
But his issue wasn't the party's location or its decor.
It was the guest list.
Beckner said commissioners had been told the money would promote the area, not be used for partisan activities. He wanted to know: Will this be open to the public?
The answer is no, it's a closed event with tickets going to about 5,600 delegates plus media, said Matt Becker, chief operating officer of the Tampa Bay Host Committee, the nonprofit organization helping to host the event.
For Beckner, that nudged the event more toward being partisan.
Beckner noted that commissioners had criticized other agencies over the perception that they spent public money on entertainment, not the least of which was a blowup over the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance spending $34,000 improperly on food.
To spend taxpayer money now on a private event would be hypocritical and not in the best interest of taxpayers, said Beckner, who cast the sole vote against it.
But Commissioner Les Miller Jr., like Beckner a Democrat, said that's not the way to look at it.
Miller said he's been to similar parties at Democratic conventions, and this won't be a drunken bash but something to bring everyone involved in the convention — delegates, staff and others — together to get things started.
Hagan described the convention, the first in Florida since 1972, as a historic opportunity and added that he could not think of a more appropriate use of Hillsborough tourist tax dollars. The tax is a 5 percent "bed tax" on hotel, motel and other overnight rentals.
Commissioner Mark Sharpe said it's not just something to entertain thousands of visitors, but to help brand the Tampa Bay area as a great place to vacation and do business.
"That's the benefit," he said.
In addition to the St. Petersburg event, the budget for the marketing program includes:
• $275,000 for a Tampa Bay information center inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum; for airport entertainers and banners, lighting and other materials to welcome visitors; for a discount guide with deals on local restaurants and attractions; for gift bags for delegates and media; and for training on the Tampa Bay area and its venues for coach, limo and taxi drivers.
• $175,000 for advertising on airline publications as well as in leisure, meeting and convention industry publications; for a behind-the-scenes tour for event and convention planners; and for promotions to drive traffic to a new visitors center in the Channel District.
• $150,000 to partner with the U.S. Travel Association and Visit Florida on promotions; to produce a "Welcome to Tampa Bay" magazine to be delivered free to all guests and media, as well as for videos with a similar theme; and to promote Tampa Bay through a local branding effort with a unified message.