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Should one county be able to levy a tax to pay for a stadium renovation in another?

From the construction of Tropicana Field 30 years ago to today's discussions of a new stadium, regional divisions have always colored baseball in Tampa Bay.

Hillsborough County residents don't like crossing the Howard Frankland. Pinellas residents worry that Tampa wants to purloin the Rays. Governing bodies with conflicting agendas fragment the tax base.

Now, a bill before the Florida Legislature could lay the groundwork for more cooperation.

It stems from a push by the Miami Dolphins to finance a $225 million renovation of their football stadium with bed taxes from both Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

The bill would loosen bed tax rules by letting one county underwrite sports projects or convention centers in an adjacent county, on the theory that tourism can benefit an entire region. The bill also would allow the bed tax to rise by 1 percent.

Several Tampa Bay officials are watching with cautious interest.

While they aren't planning to devote bed tax money to a new stadium anytime soon, they do wonder whether Hillsborough officials would ever help pay for a stadium in Pinellas, or vice versa.

For now, the bill only applies to Miami-Dade and Broward. But it could set precedent for regional stadium financing, Tampa Bay officials say, and at some point they might want to explore that option.

"It's always been my opinion that Pinellas should get the first swing at the bat" for any new stadium location, said Pinellas County Commissioner Kenneth Welch. But a site in Tampa "is not something you should say is forever off the table if that's what it takes to keep the Rays here 10 or 20 years from now."

In Hillsborough, County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan has repeatedly indicated that community leaders east of the bay may have to step in at some point to help develop a new stadium.

"The Rays are a regional asset and, as such, we should approach any potential solution in a regional manner," Hagan said. "Clearly this is something that should be looked into further."

Bed taxes, sometimes called "hotel taxes" or "tourist taxes," are levied on hotels, motels and other short-stay housing.

They frequently underwrite sports venues because they must be dedicated to tourism promotion and cannot be used for basic services like police and schools. The tax burden also falls mainly on nonresidents.

Pinellas County's bed tax pays half the debt service on the Trop's main construction bonds, which expire in five years. Hillsborough bed taxes helped build Raymond James Stadium, Steinbrenner Field and the St. Pete Times Forum.

If both Pinellas and Hillsborough raised bed taxes by 1 percent and pledged the maximum against 30-year bonds, that probably would generate at least $200 million toward a $550 million retractable-roof stadium.

Presumably, the Rays would also contribute.

Pinellas County Commission Chairwoman Susan Latvala was reluctant to speculate how any stadium package might work. The economy is bad and nobody has pitched a concrete proposal.

But in concept, she said, changing the bed tax rules could benefit Tampa Bay down the road "if people in the community and the team and all the interested parties made the decision that was the right thing to do and we could agree on a site.

"Certainly a larger area benefits from a sports team."

Sun Life Stadium, owned by the Dolphins, is 23 years old and needs upgrading from wear and tear, said team chief executive Mike Dee. The team would like to add 3,500 premium seats and enclose the stadium with a canopy.

"We need these things to compete within the current landscape for Super Bowls, Pro Bowls and (college) BCS championship games to the same degree as we have for the last 24 years," Dee said.

The stadium sits just a few hail Marys from the Broward County line. The Dolphins' training facility is in Broward, as was NFL headquarters for the 2010 Super Bowl.

"Broward got 60 percent of the economic impact of the last Super Bowl," Dee said.

If Miami can attract six Super Bowls and six college BCS championship games over the next 30 years, he added, the total economic impact should top $2.5 billion.

So far, Broward officials are cool to the idea. They voted unanimously last week to oppose the change in bed tax rules — even though they could always veto any concrete spending plans.

"For government to fund a private entity such as a sports team is something I am adamantly opposed to," said Commissioner Lois Wexler. "The board is opposed to the use of any tourist development taxes collected in Broward County for any project not wholly contained in, and for the sole benefit of, Broward County residents."

Vice Mayor John Rodstrom isn't convinced of the need to renovate Sun Life.

"You are going to have Super Bowls coming here no matter what," he said. "The NFL likes South Florida. They like the weather and a whole host of things. They are coming here notwithstanding any improvements to the stadium."

The Florida Panthers hockey team, which plays in the BankAtlantic Center in Broward, told commissioners that putting a roof over Sun Life would allow the Dolphins to compete for concerts and other nonsporting events.

Legislators like the bill as a source of job creation, said Dolphins' lobbyist Ron Book.

"People understand the need to give local government the ability to control economic development," he said.

State Rep. Darryl Rouson is on board. Bed taxes from two counties could prove useful if Tampa Bay ever builds a new stadium, he said.

"It's a hard sell to go to constituents and convince them that tax dollars, as scarce as they are, ought to be allocated to something like that," he said. "But I don't think there is anything wrong with asking tourists and visitors to spend money and to enhance the local economy."

This story has been changed to reflect the following correction: State Rep. Darryl Rouson favors a bill that would allow a county to levy bed taxes to finance sports venues in an adjacent counties. A story Sunday mistakenly attributed his comments to another person.

Should one county be able to levy a tax to pay for a stadium renovation in another? 01/15/11 [Last modified: Monday, January 17, 2011 3:47pm]
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