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Council approves stadium funding

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

However, some city representatives object to funneling hotel tax money into spring-training stadiums.

Clearwater and Dunedin officials went hat in hand to Pinellas County on Monday for $10-million in tourism funds to help finance better spring training stadiums for the Philadelphia Phillies and Toronto Blue Jays.

Members of the county's Tourism Development Council responded that they would have no problem writing such a check for baseball.

But representatives of 10 island cities complained that the county's hotel tax money should be spent for upkeep and marketing of their beaches _ the main reasons tourists come to this area.

Jim Myers, vice mayor of St. Pete Beach, said the beach cities generate 40 percent of the hotel tax revenues that are being committed to the stadium deals. He called the proposed baseball projects "civic pride facilities to be used only for a few weeks a year."

"Let these cities pay for their own facilities, and let us keep tourist tax dollars for the marketing and support of the beaches," Myers said.

The council overruled such objections, agreeing to devote $885,630 from its tourism marketing budget for 15 years, followed by $587,650 for another five years, to fulfill the teams' desires for better facilities.

Today, the Pinellas County Commission will be asked to give the stadium funding its stamp of approval.

The allocation initially would cut 8 percent from the county's annual tourism marketing budget, said county budget director Mark Woodard. But every year during the next 20 years, the money will become a smaller cut, Woodard added, as a result of projected growth in the county's tourism revenues, which come from a tax on hotel rooms in the county.

Baseball boosters at Monday's hearing, like Dunedin City Commissioner John Doglione, defended the plan, saying Pinellas is a "family of communities" and that the baseball stadium deals would benefit the whole county's tourism offerings.

To make the deal more palatable, both the Phillies and the Blue Jays pledged in last-minute negotiations on Friday and Saturday that they will pay back the county's $10-million investment with tourism marketing such as stadium signs, trip packages or possibly television and print advertising.

The contributions, the teams said, will be worth $10-million during the next 20 years.

Carole Ketterhagen, head of the county's visitors bureau, said the county would hold annual meetings with the teams to assess the marketing efforts.

The Phillies and Clearwater will use the county's money as part of a deal to build a new $22-million, 7,000-seat stadium by 2003. The Blue Jays and Dunedin will use the money for a $12-million renovation job of the existing stadium in Dunedin by 2002. They still have to finalize additional state funding for their deals.

In arguing for the cash, Clearwater and Dunedin officials touted the baseball teams as "good corporate citizens" who donate to local community and charity groups. And they praised the teams for helping to finance the stadium complexes.

Both city's speakers noted that the facilities, once upgraded, will be used by local high school baseball teams and amateur leagues, and for civic events and concerts.