CLEARWATER — Talk of using tourism tax dollars to build a convention center in Pinellas all but died on Tuesday after commissioners were told that while the area lacks meeting space, it shouldn't gamble on a gargantuan structure it might struggle to fill.
Tampa's 600,000-square-foot convention center "is a tough enough sell," said D.T. Minich, executive director of Pinellas' tourism board. "We don't want to be competing with Tampa."
Building a convention center in Pinellas is but one of many ideas that commissioners have begun to consider as they look forward to 2015, when the county will finish paying off its debt on Tropicana Field, freeing up $6 million a year for other projects.
Some of the proposals competing for that money include an expansion of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, a proposed BMX complex in Oldsmar and the county's beaches, which require constant sand infusions to fight erosion.
With no indications from Rays' management on whether the team will stay in Pinellas or build a new stadium elsewhere, Pinellas commissioners are beginning to plan for what will likely be a heated competition for public funding.
"The assumption that the money is going to be freed up just seems to be a foregone conclusion in our discussions," said Commissioner Charlie Justice.
Surveyed last year on their priorities for spending the money, a majority of the tourist council's members said maintaining the beaches was the most important goal, followed by boosting amateur sports and spring training sports facilities.
Roughly half of the group's members either liked, or were open to, the idea of using public funds to build a convention center.
But at the board's meeting on Tuesday, Minich told commissioners that what Pinellas actually needs is more hotels with larger meeting spaces. And not any hotels, but five-star ones.
"Every major destination around the state of Florida has at least one five-star brand hotel. It amazes me, in the entire Tampa Bay area, we don't have one," he said.
If Pinellas were to build a convention center, it could face the same problems Tampa has experienced, he said, citing instances where an event drew so many attendees that they had to be housed at multiple hotels. Shuttling convention-goers between the hotels and the event proved difficult.
But, Minich said, if the county could attract a Ritz-Carlton or a Waldorf Astoria, it could pull in the convention business currently repelled by Pinellas' small meeting spaces while simultaneously appealing to tourists with well-known brands.
Commissioners also discussed other proposals on Tuesday, such as using the funding, which comes from a 5 percent tax on hotel and motel rooms, to increase the number of amateur sporting events the county can host. Currently, Minich said, Pinellas fills 210,000 hotel rooms annually with sports teams and their families, but it doesn't have enough facilities to greatly increase that number.
Taking up a subject that has already made its way to Tallahassee, Commissioner Norm Roche said that if Florida's Legislature decides to expand gambling, allowing Vegas-style casinos in Miami, then Pinellas should also pursue its share of the industry.
"You drop one or two major, high-end casino resorts on our beaches, money problems solved," he said.
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.