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Rays seek Pinellas hotel tax extension for ballpark

CLEARWATER — After six months of debate in St. Petersburg, the Tampa Bay Rays' $450-million stadium proposal shifts to the desks of county government today as the Rays seek $100-million from the extension of a county tourism tax.

The Pinellas Tourist Development Council, meeting at 9 a.m., is expected to make a recommendation to the Pinellas County Commission next month.

At issue is how the county will spend 20 percent of the tax on all hotel stays.

Case for the Rays

The Rays are targeting one-fifth of Pinellas' current 5 percent hotel tax, $1 on a $100 stay.

The tax largely is paid by nonresidents, according to tourism statistics, and has limits on how it can be spent.

From April 2007 through March 2008, the 5 percent tax generated $25.5-million for Pinellas County, according to the Pinellas Convention and Visitor's Bureau. Of that:

• $15.3-million went to tourism marketing and operations.

• $5.36-million helped pay off debt at three sports facilities (Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Bright House Networks Field in Clearwater and Knology Park in Dunedin).

• $2.3-million was redirected to beach nourishment.

• $2.5-million was kept in reserve or awarded as cultural grants.

The Tropicana Field payments will expire in September 2015.

The Rays want to extend the current distribution 25 to 30 years to help pay for a $450-million waterfront stadium.

What makes the extension compelling, the Rays argue, is that the county eventually could receive unrestricted tax revenue from development of Tropicana Field.

State statutes limit how the money now paying for Tropicana Field can be used. It cannot, for example, be used to fund general county services.

But if the county extended the tourism tax, and Tropicana Field was developed, the property and sales taxes generated by that development could, if the city agrees, be spent on everything from sheriff's deputies to tourism marketing.

The Rays also say there will be a significant impact on tourism. The team has been promised an All-Star Game in the new ballpark, which could have an impact of up to $70-million, Rays officials say.

Case against the Rays

Opponents of tourist tax extension envision a county unable to repair eroding beaches and compete in the global tourism market.

Though the county's obligation to pay off debt at Tropicana Field expires in 2015, the tax does not. It could fund other projects.

Take beach nourishment. Right now, a portion of the bed tax, about $2.3-million a year, is used to maintain the white-sand beaches of Pinellas.

Every dollar the county pays on the beaches, the state matches. And the federal government coughs up $3.50. Some county commissioners fear state and federal money will dry up.

The tourist tax also could be used for a new convention center, or a museum or zoo.

And it could be used, like much of the bed tax is today, to promote tourism.

It's all but impossible in 2008 to know which, if any, of those options could become a pressing need in 2015, said Redington Shores Mayor Jody Armstrong.

That's why Armstrong, who sits on the Tourist Development Council, which will hear the Rays' proposal today, worries it's premature to commit the tax for a new ballpark.

"Come 2015, there might be an obviously better use for it," she said. "It could be something brand new that we don't even know about yet."

Rays seek Pinellas hotel tax extension for ballpark 06/10/08 [Last modified: Saturday, June 14, 2008 11:22pm]
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