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Museums outscore sports on economic playing field

No knock on pro sports, but around here it's the museums that have the most muscle.

Big-league sports franchises typically get the most notice for the economic clout they wield, but newer evidence finds that culture and the arts, including museums, are an even bigger draw.

A recent study of the Tampa Bay area's arts and cultural activities found that trend, but it is also evident on the streets and sidewalks of downtown St. Petersburg. Tour buses, long lines and packed restaurants attest to the pull of the thriving museum scene here.

"We have people who come through here, buy things and ask us for directions to the museums all the time," said Sandy King, manager of Goldberg's St. Pete Bagels at 249 Central Ave. "About 90 percent of them are from out of town, so they don't really know where they are. And a lot of them are foreign tourists. You hear a number of different accents."

Lots of people spending lots of money. That was just what Mayor David Fischer had in mind when, in the early 1990s, he called a group together to explore ways to create a venue that would be a big draw from the start _ on a limited budget.

"My model was Memphis," Fischer said last week. "I said, "They're doing this right now with Catherine the Great,' " a blockbuster exhibition in a convention center. Despite the ungainly venue, the show was so compelling it drew thousands of people daily.

"This was 1992 or so," Fischer said. "We had an empty stadium, no team and downtown was foundering."

Today, the Devil Rays are playing at Tropicana Field, a clutch of museums at the other end of downtown are posting record attendance, and Fischer has witnessed a lesson about economic redevelopment tactics.

"There is a multiple impact with cultural attractions that's much greater than sports," he said. "Sports has a real economic impact, but the cost of the building (to the city) is enormous."

While baseball and museums are both sure to boost the local economy, the costs to get there diverge hugely. The city's portion for building the domed stadium will be in excess of $175-million, before debt service. The city's cost to save the old Maas Brothers building to keep the Florida International Museum alive was $3.9-million.

A 1997 study for the Tampa Bay Business Committee for the Arts by the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche bears out St. Petersburg's experience.

The firm found that arts and cultural activities in one year pumped $232.2-million into the economies of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

According to figures from the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, gathered to justify construction of a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the football team has an annual economic impact of $84-million.

The Super Bowl, regarded as the big dog of mega sports events, pumped $150-million to $200-million into the local economy the last time it was here.

Arts educator Barbara Benesch told a Southern economic development group last summer, "Far from being dependent, or draining our federal, state or local treasuries, the non-profit arts industry in the U.S. is an important contributor to our economy through our direct and indirect spending, capital construction, tourism and jobs and wages."

Restaurateur Susan Bertoni feels the power.

"We have always had really excellent lunches because of the business people in downtown St. Petersburg," said the co-owner of Bertoni's Italian Restaurant at 16 Second St. N, "but museum visitors extend our lunch times, and they tend to eat bigger meals. They really like to take time and eat their meals."

The significance of gaining a reputation as a good cultural destination for visitors was underscored last week, when St. Petersburg Junior College President Carl Kuttler said that downtown was being considered as the site for yet another museum, this one to exhibit a $20-million collection of mid-20th-century art.

"Having good museums attracts other good museums," Fischer said. "If you have an art exhibit, downtown St. Petersburg is the place to put it. We're becoming a magnet for cultural exhibits that people want to see."

The Tampa Bay Holocaust Memorial Museum and Educational Center opened downtown this spring. The Salvador Dali Museum has been searching for a new downtown site. Great Explorations _ The Hands-on Museum is relocating to near The Pier.

"Cultural tourism is bigger than sports tourism, in Florida and nationally," said Joe Cronin, Florida International Museum president. "Sports gets more emphasis, it gets the big stadiums built for it. There's nothing wrong with that, and now we have the best of both worlds here."