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Why helping the Dalí Museum is a good deal

A way has been found to help the Salvador Dalí Museum complete its new building in St. Petersburg, but not everyone is cheering. Wednesday's announcement that $5 million worth of tax revenue will be used to rescue the construction project has brought out some critics.

Some say tax dollars shouldn't go to a private entity like the Dalí Museum, especially when taxpayers are struggling and local governments are laying off workers and cutting services. It's an understandable and not unexpected reaction.

But some of the critics seem uninformed about the details of the funding deal and the reasons St. Petersburg officials and the Pinellas County Tourist Development Council are poised to give $2.5 million each to the Dalí Museum. Here are some of the critical comments I've heard and some information that provides context. Maybe it will even change a few minds.

Public tax dollars shouldn't be given to a private entity.

The museum is a private entity, but it is built on publicly owned land on the St. Petersburg downtown waterfront. The Dalí Museum's presence is really the result of a partnership between the private museum and the people of St. Petersburg, who are allowing the museum to use their land.

Furthermore, governments help out private organizations all the time by providing money or taxpayer-funded in-kind services. Think the Tampa Bay Rays. Or private organizations that shelter the homeless with government assistance. Or a whole passel of festivals, art shows, races and concerts that get a hand from government.

The Dalí Museum should just hold a fundraiser.

The museum has held lots of fundraisers. It has hit up donors big and small. Through donations, grants and government contributions, it raised $30 million of the $36 million needed to finish the new museum. Then it hit a wall and saw that it wouldn't have the money to finish the building. So museum officials asked St. Petersburg and the county to provide $5 million and the museum will scrape together the rest. Some say the museum shouldn't have started a project it couldn't finish, but the plan and budget were created before the economy tanked and philanthropic giving dried up.

The tax money the Dalí will get should be spent for something else, like saving local government workers from layoffs.

Nice idea, but not possible.

The $2.5 million the St. Petersburg City Council voted to give the Dalí Museum comes from taxes collected in the Intown Redevelopment District and can legally be spent only on improvement projects in that district. The museum is in the district. The money could not be spent to hire back city workers or pay for services in other parts of the city.

The $2.5 million the Pinellas Tourist Development Council said last week should be given to the Dalí comes from the 5 percent tax on hotel accommodations paid by hotel guests, and it may be spent only on a short list of items that support tourism. The County Commission must concur for both awards to go to the Dalí.

Museums all over Pinellas are struggling to stay afloat. Why should the Dalí get special treatment?

Put bluntly, no other museum in the county is in the same league. In Pinellas, the No. 1 tourist attraction is the beaches. No. 2 is the Dalí Museum. It has an international reputation, housing the largest collection of Salvador Dalí's work outside his native Spain. It attracts 200,000 visitors a year and is expected to attract at least 300,000 after the new building opens, based on a study of what happened to attendance figures at other U.S. museums when they moved into new and better facilities.

The Tourist Development Council recognizes that other museums are struggling, so it plans changes to the county tourist development plan that would allow other Pinellas museums to apply for funding from the bed tax collections under certain circumstances.

Why should the Dalí get my tax dollars? It hasn't done anything for me.

Even Pinellas residents who don't go to the Dalí Museum (or take their houseguests there) benefit because the museum is a business generator. It is a huge attraction for St. Petersburg, obviously, contributing to the bustling business environment downtown. But it isn't just St. Petersburg that benefits. Tourists visiting the Dalí Museum stay in Pinellas an average of four days, generating 115,000 hotel nights a year. Those visits help keep hotels, restaurants, stores and other tourist attractions in business, and that provides jobs. The visitors spend money here, which boosts sales tax, gas tax and bed tax collections used to help finance many of the government services residents receive and some community amenities they enjoy.

You don't have to be an art lover to appreciate what the Dalí does for Pinellas. And you don't need a particularly good head for business to understand that an empty, unfinished museum building occupying public waterfront land indefinitely would do nothing for this community.

Diane Steinle is editor of editorials for the North Pinellas editions of the St. Petersburg Times.

Why helping the Dalí Museum is a good deal 08/14/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 14, 2010 5:30am]

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