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Pinellas tourist board not sold on Rays' stadium plan

CLEARWATER — The waterfront stadium debate shifted Wednesday to its effect on Pinellas tourism and whether county leaders should use a hotel tax to help pay for the project.

The county's Tourist Development Council failed to reach a consensus during hour-long talks. The group, a combination of local elected leaders and county tourism operators, will make a recommendation to the Pinellas County Commission on July 9, with the county expected to make a final decision July 22.

"I have a sense this board is pretty split," said County Commissioner Bob Stewart, who doubles as tourist board chairman.

At issue is the continued use of a portion of the county's 5 percent hotel bed tax to help finance a $450-million baseball stadium on the St. Petersburg waterfront.

The Rays are asking the county to contribute $100-million to the project. Because the county would have to borrow the money and then repay it over 30 years, the cost would be much greater, like a mortgage.

Tampa Bay Rays president Matt Silverman made his best pitch for the additional money Wednesday, saying the investment will be offset by tax revenue generated by the redevelopment of Tropicana Field.

For tourism operators, he floated the potential boon of hosting an All-Star Game and the national exposure of an outdoor, waterfront stadium.

But board members were not convinced. They have asked the county to unearth a decade-old study analyzing the Rays' impact on tourism. (The Rays are paying for a different, independent study.)

Russ Kimball, a member of the tourist board and general manager of the Sheraton Sand Key, also wondered if the money could be better spent. Though the hotel tax cannot finance general county services, it can be directed to Pinellas' beaches, for instance.

"The No. 1 competition on these dollars is beach restoration," Kimball said.

Pinellas tourist board not sold on Rays' stadium plan 06/11/08 [Last modified: Friday, June 13, 2008 3:45pm]
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