CLEARWATER –– Pinellas County relies on more than just beaches to attract visitors. County government also spends millions to help sponsor big-name events to draw even more tourists.
But now the Pinellas County Commission wants to see exactly how many visitors and how big an economic impact they're getting in return for that investment.
The commission on Tuesday approved spending up to $1.5 million in tourist tax revenues to sponsor 12 events that they hope will draw even more tourists in 2018.
The biggest winners include annual events such as the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg ($250,000), followed by the Valspar PGA Championship ($250,000), the Outback Bowl & Clearwater Beach Day ($150,000); and the St. Petersburg Bowl ($135,000).
But commissioners also delivered a sharp message to event organizers: Turn over your attendance figures and economic impact data if you want the cash.
"How can we justify these numbers when we don't have data to back it up," County Commissioner Karen Seel said. "I have a problem with it, big time ... This just disturbs me."
Commission chair Janet Long replied: "We are the final decision makers."
Seel raised concerns after a St. Petersburg Bowl official told the Tourist Development Council that he could not provide financial data from the event because it's owned by ESPN Events, a private corporation. The bowl game would also only provide estimated, not actual, attendance. When the Dec. 26, 2016 game was held at Tropicana Field it had an announced attendance of 15,717.
The council is a board of public and private officials that oversees the county's tourism marketing agency, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater. The agency's Chief Operating Officer, Tim Ramsberger, said it won't be easy to get accurate and consistent attendance figures from the events.
He helped lead the negotiations with each of the events, and told commissioners that reliable data will be hard to come by unless the county conducts the surveys. He said the agency is working to ferret out bad numbers during the application and vetting process.
"We're trying to do our part to tighten this up," Ramsberger said. "We have to take it on face value."
"That sends the wrong message by approving it," Commissioner Dave Eggers said about striking deals with events without accurate figures.
The county will now finish negotiations with each group. But commissioners ordered staffers to require event organizers to provide the information before any money is disbursed.
Pinellas' visitors pay a 6-cent tax for every dollar they spend on hotel rooms, rentals, RV parks and campgrounds. Those bed taxes fund the county's tourism marketing efforts and some infrastructure projects.
There were 20 requests for a total of $2.2 million, but the TDC vetted the events and paired it down to 12 "elite events" that will share up to $1.5 million. Each event is required to draw thousands of visitors and thousands of hotel stays. The 12 events fall into two categories:
The four events that will receive the biggest awards must draw at least 25,000 people and/or generate at least 10,000 hotel nights.
The other eight events must draw at least 15,000 and/or generate at least 5,000 room nights.
Each of these six events could receive up to $100,000: Clearwater Jazz Holiday, Spectrum Clearwater National Super Boat Championship Festival, Pier 60 Sugar Sand Festival, East-West Shrine Game, Clearwater Seafood & Blues Festival and the John's Pass Seafood Festival.
The Old Salt Fall King of the Beach Tournament and Festival could receive up to $60,000; St. Pete Pride could get up to $52,900.
Some of the eights events that didn't meet the criteria for tourism dollars include the St. Pete Food and Wine Festival, MLK Dream Big Parade and Old Salt Baddest BBQ and Fishing Slam.
Editor's note: This story was updated with new information at 2 p.m. Friday.
Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente