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Pinellas bed tax could be tapped to build new Tampa Bay Rays stadium

Talk about surreal — if the Tampa Bay Rays ever get a new stadium in Pinellas County, they can thank Salvador Dali for lending a hand.

The Tourist Development Commission is drafting a plan that could reserve bed tax dollars for stadium construction as early as 2015.

This funding mechanism is not etched in stone. The tourist commission still must approve the plan and, down the road, county commissioners would have to agree that a new stadium is a good use of tax dollars.

But draft versions of the plan do represent the county's first concrete movement toward eventually replacing Tropicana Field. The Rays have said they will not still be playing at the Trop by 2027, when the team's contract with St. Petersburg expires.

Most people "believe baseball is a rich part of our history. And if you want to be a major metropolitan area, it's something you need in a community," said Frank Hibbard, Clearwater's mayor and a tourist commission member.

Reserving part of the bed tax "keeps our options open."

Dali Museum board members inadvertently got the ball rolling.

The tourist commission, known as the TDC, controls a 5 percent tax on temporary lodging like hotel and motel rooms. The tax brings in about $25 million a year that is largely spent on tourist marketing, beach renourishment and sports facilities.

Earlier this year, Dali Museum board members asked for a slice of the pie.

They are building a $35 million museum on St. Petersburg's waterfront with private donations. But with construction nearing its end, they are $5 million short.

The Dali draws 180,000 visitors a year to Pinellas County, they told the TDC. Could you cover our shortfall up front or give it to us over time?

The TDC, an amalgam of elected officials and business executives, is still debating whether to help the Dali, but the request got them thinking:

How should bed tax money be spent over the next few decades? Draft plans that emerged from those discussions include a possible funding stream for a new stadium.

State law allows counties to levy bed taxes of up to 5 cents on the dollar. Individual cents are slotted for specific spending.

In Pinellas, the entire "fourth cent" now underwrites bonds that helped build and renovate Tropicana Field, covering about $5 million of the stadium's annual $12 million debt service.

The fourth cent is earmarked exclusively for the Trop and expires in 2015 when the debt is paid off. If it's not renewed, under arcane state laws, the authority to collect a fifth cent that is spent on tourist promotion also would disappear.

Drafts of the new TDC plan for renewing the fourth cent call for using 90 percent to pay for a new stadium beginning in 2015.

An ABC Coalition analysis indicated that money would cover up to $70 million of construction. It did not take into account any growth in tourism tax revenue over the next 30 years.

With a retractable roof stadium costing $500 million to $600 million, the TDC's fourth cent "is the keystone of financing," said Clearwater contractor Alan Bomstein, who chaired the coalition's finance committee.

Rolling over all or most of the fourth cent would just continue an existing revenue stream, Bomstein said. "Of all the components of debt service, that one would seem to be the least challenging."

The TDC is passionately divided over using bed tax money for museums, said Karen Seel, who chairs both the TDC and the County Commission. But using the fourth cent for a new stadium has broader support.

TDC member and TradeWinds Island Resorts executive Tim Bogott agrees. Hotel and tourist interests worry that extending the bed tax to museum construction would encourage other groups to request money for their projects, which would eat away at tourism promotion.

"There is never enough money to do all the things different groups want to do," Bogott said.

The stadium, on the other hand, would be extending an existing use.

"You can debate ad infinitum what we think are all the great benefits of baseball," Bogott said, "but I don't want, from a personal TradeWinds perspective, to find out the hard way that it's a lot more beneficial that we might have thought."

The TDC will discuss the new spending plan Aug. 11. The plan also would have to be approved by the County Commission.

Commissioner Ken Welch said he couldn't talk about stadium issues in detail until St. Petersburg invites the county to enter the discussion. But he agreed that bed tax money makes sense for stadium financing.

"I've always advocated using that revenue source because it is funded by tourists," not property taxes, he said.

The county ultimately may choose not to spend bed tax money on a new stadium, Seel emphasized, but changing the TDC plan to allow for that after 2015 is important.

"It was serendipitous that this all came together when the Dali people got the TDC to discuss" the future, she said. "It's the right time to have a plan in place for forward thinking."

Pinellas bed tax could be tapped to build new Tampa Bay Rays stadium 07/02/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 2, 2010 10:38pm]
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