The Pinellas County Commission is scheduled to vote Tuesday on the first major revision to the county's tourist development plan in more than 20 years. A request for money by the private Dalí Museum triggered these proposed changes, but it is far from the only beneficiary in a plan that would modernize how the county spends its 5-cent tax on lodging. The commission should embrace the proposed changes to help the county compete for tourists' dollars now and in the future.
The bed tax generates close to $25 million a year and is spent on tourism marketing, renourishment of Pinellas beaches, construction and maintenance of convention centers or professional sports stadiums, promotion of nonprofit museums and marketing of special events that draw tourists.
But that formula doesn't include giving tax dollars to private museums seeking capital money — such as the $2.5 million the Dalí Museum requested 10 months ago to complete its iconic building on St. Petersburg's downtown waterfront. In addition, the fourth cent of the tax collected exclusively for debt payments on Tropicana Field is scheduled to expire in 2015. Because state law allows Pinellas to levy a fifth cent only if the fourth cent is in place, Pinellas would be left with only a 3-cent tax in 2015 if no action is taken.
The loss of 40 percent of the lodging tax, most of which is paid by tourists, would be a heavy blow at a time when the recession has hurt the hotel trade, donations to nonprofit tourist destinations such as museums are down, local governments are slashing their budgets for recreation and marketing, and the possible construction of a baseball stadium looms.
After 10 months of meetings and debate involving museum officials, hoteliers, the Tourist Development Council and the County Commission, the result is a set of reasonable proposed changes to the tourist development plan, including these:
Extend the fourth cent of the tax indefinitely after the Tropicana Field debt is paid off in 2015 and designate that up to 80 percent of the proceeds could be used for a new professional baseball stadium. Commissioners insist the money could be spent only in Pinellas County, even though the Tampa Bay Rays also want to consider sites in Hillsborough County. Commissioners should take a more regional view, but at least this amendment would provide some money if a Pinellas stadium site were selected.
Spend up to $2 million annually to market special events, promote exhibits or programs of nonprofit museums or zoological parks, and to sponsor events and programs.
Provide up to $1 million in matching money annually to buy, build or maintain Pinellas coliseums, museums and sports facilities that can prove they attract tourists.
The plan does not create a new tax. It would extend an existing one and grant more flexibility on how the revenue could be spent. That wisely reflects Pinellas' evolution as a tourist destination and includes the nurturing of legitimate tourist draws such as the Dalí Museum and amateur athletic sports complexes. Also significant is that the plan preserves important funding for national and international promotion of Pinellas tourism, which hoteliers consider vital.
At least five of the seven commissioners must approve the amended plan for it to take effect, and Commissioner Neil Brickfield could be the swing vote. Brickfield should join the supporters of the changes and embrace a smart update of the tourist development tax that provides a clear map for the future.