The ThunderDome is the child of a political marriage that has linked officials representing Pinellas County and the city of St. Petersburg for more than a decade. The Dome was built in downtown St. Petersburg after other county sites were rejected for economic or environmental reasons, but the Pinellas Sports Authority was the original driving force behind the project. Beyond that, county commissioners have long promised to do their part to finance the Dome's operations once a major-league franchise was secured as an anchor tenant.
Until now, though, the citizens of St. Petersburg have borne the brunt of Dome support, contributing about $6-million a year to defray operating costs and to pay off the bonds used to finance construction. Now, with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' owners and Major League Baseball officials demanding an additional $50-million in Dome improvements, city officials are looking to the county to live up to its promises and contribute its fair share to a facility that is a major asset to the entire region.
After a few unsettling weeks of sounding more like deadbeat dads than responsible guardians, most Pinellas commissioners have begun to move toward an agreement with St. Petersburg. More than half of the $50-million will come from state sales tax money. Team owners will chip in a symbolic $3-million or so. And city and county officials have less than a week to decide how to come up with the remaining $20-million.
If this were an entirely fair and logical process, the Devil Rays' ownership would be bearing a much larger share of the burden for all the "necessary" Dome improvements discovered in the past few weeks. But Vince Naimoli, having been so recently held up by his fellow owners, is not in a charitable mood. He himself is a victim of baseball's growing greed.
His group is paying almost twice as much for an expansion franchise as the San Francisco Giants would have cost three years ago. That's one more reason he is insisting on the same sort of sweetheart deal that other owners routinely receive from communities in no position to argue.
The final deal between the city and county won't be entirely fair, either. Throughout their Tuesday session, commissioners kept sounding as if they were being forced to make a charitable contribution to St. Petersburg rather than simply living up to their past commitments. The $10-million that the county seems willing to contribute is less than St. Petersburg officials had a right to expect, but the city's inept negotiating tactics will bear much of the blame for that.
At least the commissioners should be able to assure that their contribution will be as painless as possible for county taxpayers. As Commissioner Charles Rainey noted at Tuesday's meeting, the most logical source of new revenue is the county tourist tax. A one-cent increase in the tax, which now is only 3 percent, would still leave Pinellas below the rate of most other comparable counties in the state.
The tourist tax has several advantages over other possible revenue sources. It was created for the express purpose of supporting attractions such as the Dome. It would target out-of-town visitors, not local residents, to pick up most of the county's tab.
It also would target a sector of the local economy that will profit most from baseball's arrival. And by tying the fourth cent to the Dome, other tourist tax funds could be redistributed to projects, such as beach renourishment and tourism promotion, that benefit other areas of the county.
Commissioners still haven't agreed on a formula for their share of the deal, but at least everyone now seems committed to contributing in some way. There is no more of the intransigent rhetoric that threatened to send baseball packing last month.
This one last, unnecessary fight over Dome financing is a distasteful postscript to a quest that already has been far more lengthy and expensive than anyone feared. But quibbling over this final piece of the puzzle is like risking the entire foundation of a house by haggling over the price of the front door.
The tangible and intangible benefits of baseball will be felt throughout Tampa Bay from 1998 forward, and the real games will continue long after these budgetary games have been forgotten.