ST. PETERSBURG — It's official: Winter the dolphin can get in line for bed tax dollars.
The Pinellas County Commission on Tuesday approved changes that make aquariums eligible to receive capital funding from the 5 percent surcharge added to hotel stays.
The unanimous vote also makes $4.5 million available for capital projects each year, or three-quarters of 1 percent of the tax, whichever is greater. It also eliminates an existing $500,000 cap for a single project. Successful applicants will need to pony up $1 in matching funds for every dollar of bed tax money provided, a reduction from the $2 required before.
The new rules will help address an anticipated influx of requests for roughly $6 million in annual bed tax revenue that will become available in 2015 when the main bonds on Tropicana Field expire. Some of that money already is committed.
"We want to make sure that we are funding multiple projects and not just one," said Commission Chairwoman Karen Seel, who also chairs the tourism council.
Along with the changes, the board approved eligibility guidelines and a point system to rank proposed projects. Applications will be scored in nine categories, including the quality of the business plan and a feasibility study that must include a profit-loss analysis. The biggest potential for points lies in the number of projected hotel room nights the project generates.
Under a timetable approved Tuesday, applications will be due in October. The tourism council will review a committee report on the proposals by March and the County Commission will give final approval by April. Projects could be evaluated and approved off that timetable on a case-by-case basis, Seel said.
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is one of several projects that hope to float long-term construction bonds by using some of the Trop money as backing. The city of Dunedin wants spring training upgrades for the Toronto Blue Jays, and Oldsmar wants to build an Olympic BMX track. The state budgets include $1.2 million to pay for the track but could be a veto target for Gov. Rick Scott.
The Tampa Bay Rays, who want a new stadium sometime in the next decade but have yet to decide where, might be in the mix later down the road. That project could top $600 million.
Buoyed by the movie Dolphin Tale, the aquarium has outgrown its aging, cramped quarters near Clearwater Beach and wants to build a $160 million facility downtown. The state budget also includes $2 million for the project.
David Yates, the aquarium's chief executive officer, says the changes adopted Tuesday are good news for his organization and other contenders, too.
"We're not presumptuous about anything, and we don't take anything for granted," said Yates, an executive producer on Dolphin Tale 2, due out later this year. "We still have to bring something that is a viable project."