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Many projects likely to compete for Pinellas bed tax money in 2015

For Pinellas, 2015 is shaping up to be the year of the big ask.

That's when the county will finish paying off its debt on Tropicana Field, freeing up $6 million a year for other projects. Groups waiting to compete for that money include the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which is planning a new $160 million facility, a proposed BMX complex in Oldsmar and the county's own beaches.

And though St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster has said he is negotiating with the Tampa Bay Rays to allow the team to explore new stadium sites outside the city, some are holding out hope that one will be built, possibly with county money, in Pinellas.

"I don't think it's a matter of if they (the Rays) come and ask, I think it's a matter of when — unless a decision is made to build in Tampa," said St. Petersburg City Council member Leslie Curran.

As the list of real and rumored projects potentially seeking tourism tax money grows, commissioners and members of the Tourist Development Council met Thursday to begin plotting a strategy for dealing with the requests. A set of criteria is needed to measure each proposal and its economic impact on the county. The two boards plan to meet again later this year to devise the standards.

"It's really important we get this established sooner rather than later," said Commissioner Susan Latvala. "People are lining up to get some of this money, and we don't want to be caught in a frenzy and the loudest voice wins. It's got to really be something that's going to enhance the county."

At the same time that the Rays are debating whether to stay in the region, another major-league team, the Toronto Blue Jays, has talked of moving its spring training out of Dunedin. Bed tax money could come into play in any effort to keep the Blue Jays in Pinellas.

Also at the forefront of most commissioners' minds is how much money will be needed to keep the county's beaches worthy of glossy brochures. Every year, the coastline naturally loses sand to storms and erosion, while the Sisyphean task of putting it back grows more costly. Pinellas officials are currently projecting nearly $21 million worth of beach restoration projects next fiscal year, some of which may be delayed if federal and state funding doesn't materialize.

"We need to refocus on the importance of trying to fix our beach communities so that stays the drawing part," said Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos.

"If you're talking about what puts heads in beds, it is the beaches," he said, and yet the county allocates only $3 million a year in bed tax money to them.

Pinellas' 5 percent tax on hotel and motel rooms generates about $30 million a year, money that can be spent on advertising, beach restoration, and other brick-and-mortar projects, including sports stadiums.

If the Rays do ask Pinellas to pay for part of a new stadium — a request likely to face skepticism from commissioners — the county may have a new option to explore: raising the bed tax.

As more tourists come to Pinellas, the county could meet the state's criteria for having a "high tourism impact," allowing the commission to raise the bed tax to 6 cents and generate an additional $6 million a year.

To qualify, Pinellas needs to meet the state's benchmark of $600 million in taxable sales. County Administrator Bob LaSala said he expects the county to hit that level this year. Last year, total sales were roughly $575 million.

Raising the tax rate would require approval from five of seven commissioners.

"I shudder to think of it," Commissioner Karen Seel said after the meeting.

Websites like Kayak and Expedia have made it easier for tourists to compare hotel prices, and sales taxes could be a factor in where they go, she said.

"I believe it would have an impact on the rental rates," she said, "especially when people are booking online."

Many projects likely to compete for Pinellas bed tax money in 2015 08/08/13 [Last modified: Thursday, August 8, 2013 10:21pm]
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