Lawmakers want Clearwater Marine Aquarium to get cut of hotel tax money

A video of Winter the dolphin plays on a screen that looks like the window of a tank at the new “Winter’s Dolphin Tale Adventure” exhibit at the Harborview Center in Clearwater.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

A video of Winter the dolphin plays on a screen that looks like the window of a tank at the new “Winter’s Dolphin Tale Adventure” exhibit at the Harborview Center in Clearwater.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium won a wave of tourists thanks to world attention from the Dolphin Tale film set there.

Now aquarium backers want lawmakers to help fish out tourist tax money for the venue.

Two Clearwater-based state lawmakers have filed bills to make aquariums eligible to receive a cut from the county's 5 percent tax on hotel stays. State law now excludes them from receiving the money, overseen in Pinellas County by the Tourist Development Council. Sports stadiums, convention centers and museums are eligible.

The change would apply statewide to nonprofit aquariums open to the public, including the Florida Aquarium in Tampa. If the Legislature approves, each county would decide whether to give money to an aquarium for construction, operations and promotions.

But state Rep. Ed Hooper and state Sen. Jack Latvala, both Republicans, said their bills (HB 1015/SB 1274) are geared for Clearwater's venue.

"At the end of the day, Clearwater produces a fair amount of the TDC money in this county," Hooper said. "And I'm not sure that we ever get the same consideration on the expenditure side. This would help that equation also."

Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, who asked lawmakers for the bills, said tourists and hotel stays have increased with attention from the film, which is based on the life of a rescued dolphin with a prosthetic tail.

No specific project is envisioned for the money, though the aquarium recently expanded, Hibbard said.

David Yates, chief executive officer of the aquarium, did not return a message seeking comment Friday.

But some hoteliers, who often oppose tax money being siphoned from marketing that attracts tourists, have qualms.

"I think the Clearwater Marine Aquarium is a great asset to our destination, and nobody would disagree with that, but where does it stop?" Keith Overton, president of the Tradewinds Island Resorts on St. Pete Beach, said in an email Friday.

"Every museum will want funding, all the theme parks will expect a piece of it. … Next, it will be restaurants making an argument that they, too, attract visitors to the destination."

Pinellas' hotel tax generated $25.6 million the past year. Parts of it pay for debt on Tropicana Field, beach renourishment and marketing various tourism-related sites. Last year, however, county officials agreed to give $2.5 million to the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg.

Pinellas TDC member Russ Bond, general manager of the Renaissance Vinoy hotel in St. Petersburg, said the aquarium would have a "threshold to cross" to justify receiving tourist taxes — such as showing increased overnight stays by tourists.

"I didn't see this one coming," Bond said. "My opinion is I think we would address it just like we looked at the Dalí Museum situation. … To tell anyone no in this day and age is shortsighted."

Hibbard and Clearwater officials first balked at providing the Dalí Museum with money in 2010. At the time, they noted the aquarium and other Clearwater sites were left out.

Ultimately, the county resolved the fight by allowing more venues to be eligible for marketing money earmarked from the tourist tax, including "zoological parks." But that term actually doesn't fit the aquarium, tourism director D.T. Minich said. The county did spend $144,000 for an ad in USA Today promoting the area as Dolphin Tale hit theaters this year.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/decamptimes.

Lawmakers want Clearwater Marine Aquarium to get cut of hotel tax money 12/23/11 [Last modified: Friday, December 23, 2011 8:26pm]

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