To hear some members of the Pinellas Tourist Development Council tell it, the resort tax amounts to a private kitty for beach hotels. They want it spent on slick ads, mounds of sand and nothing else. That's bald self-interest talking, and it's untenable public policy.
Regardless of whether the Tampa Bay Rays deserve a portion to help build a new St. Petersburg waterfront stadium, the county's 5 percent resort tax is meant to be spent broadly in ways that enhance Pinellas as an attractive destination for travelers. Already, two-thirds of the $25.5-million collected each year is poured into marketing and beach renourishment. Do the beach hotel owners want the other third as well?
What the Rays want is an extension on the current 1-cent commitment for Tropicana Field. Council members are right to demand an accounting of how much a new signature outdoor field would contribute to tourism. No stadium or convention center or arena deserves resort money without justifying the return to taxpayers.
The problem with the line of questioning from Wednesday's council meeting was that it treated the Rays as though they don't deserve a seat at the table. Maybe Rays president Matt Silverman would have received a more receptive hearing had he delivered a few barges full of beach sand first.
In the words of Sheraton Sand Key general manager Russ Kimball: "The No. 1 competition on these dollars is beach restoration."
Beach renourishment, of course, is important on Pinellas' fragile barrier islands. But last year alone, the Rays sold 300,000 tickets to people who live outside the region, and Major League Baseball already has committed to bring the All-Star game if a new facility is built. Major-league sports are an undeniable draw, though it is still unclear the extent to which a new stadium would result in greater tourism. Silverman promises to deliver an independent consultant report on the subject.
The stadium plan would free 86 publicly owned acres downtown for private development, which could generate property taxes that would ultimately surpass the commitment of annual tourist tax dollars to a new stadium. But the tourist council is so narrowly focused on its own budget that it seems to lose sight of the fact that county tax dollars, too, can be invested in beach renourishment. The council also seems to ignore that the Rays would free a portion of the current penny to be used for other purposes.
To be fair, the council and the County Commission are under intense time constraints to evaluate the Rays plan and whether to extend the current tax to help pay for it. But the decision needs to consider the broader interests of the county and not just those of beach hoteliers.