With its new $36 million building only partially completed and construction money running low, the Dali Museum wants $5 million in hotel bed tax money to finish the job. The Pinellas County Tourist Development Council wisely decided Wednesday to take two months to gather more information before making a decision. There is a lot to consider.
The Dali Museum, which showcases a collection of surrealist artist Salvador Dali's work valued at up to $500 million, is unquestionably a world-class resource that attracts visitors to St. Petersburg from all over the globe. The current museum — little more than a warehouse — easily could be destroyed by wind or flood. The new building, which will be hurricane-resistant and feature some nice Dali-esque architectural touches, will be twice as large and include a restaurant and gardens. It is scheduled to open next January.
Before any hotel bed tax money is committed to the museum project, council members and the community need answers to some obvious questions. Is the museum doing all it can to raise the money from private sources? Is the Dali project an appropriate use for the bed tax, which is a 5 percent tax on room rates that is supposed to be used to increase employment and strengthen the economy through the promotion of tourism? What other projects or programs would have to be cut from the already strained budget of the county Convention and Visitors Bureau to give the Dali $5 million, which is roughly 20 percent of the annual tax collection? And is it unfair to consider a grant for the Dali without allowing other struggling Pinellas arts and cultural groups to compete for bed tax dollars?
Museum officials did their best Wednesday to persuade the council to commit. They pointed out that the museum gets 200,000 visitors a year and generates 115,000 hotel nights annually. The numbers could double, they said, when the new museum opens. They explained they raised $30 million of the total needed — $15 million from private donors, $6 million from the sale of the current museum site, and the remainder from state and federal funds. But stymied by a recession they could not have foreseen when they started fundraising several years ago, officials said they may have to sell some of Dali's paintings or use them as collateral to borrow money if they can't raise more cash by spring.
Pinellas County should consider helping with the Dali project, especially since the state and federal governments have contributed. But how and how much warrants more study and discussion.