Pinellas County lets Clearwater pursue a $40 million request for Phillies stadium overhaul. Reluctantly.

County commissioners express reservations about spending that much on the stadium
The County  Commission sees a big  difference between the Clearwater's request for the Phillies' stadium (above) and Dunedin's request for the  Blue Jays' stadium.  MONICA HERNDON   |   Times
The County Commission sees a big difference between the Clearwater's request for the Phillies' stadium (above) and Dunedin's request for the Blue Jays' stadium. MONICA HERNDON | Times
Published January 22

CLEARWATER — The Pinellas County Commission on Tuesday gave its blessing for Clearwater officials to begin negotiating their $40 million request for county bed taxes to overhaul the Philadelphia Phillies stadium and training facilities, giving the city an approval needed just to apply for state funding.

But county officials made clear that when the time comes later this year to decide how much money, if any, to grant, $40 million might be a stretch.

“From my perspective today it’s about, yeah, I want to continue exploring this relationship, I want to move forward with that, but I don’t want people to walk away from here thinking that we’re nodding on $40 million,” Commissioner Dave Eggers said.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: No funding yet for Phillies stadium renovation but Clearwater is already spending

Spectrum Field was built just 15 years ago for $34 million with facilities “the other team in the county” would be glad to have as-is today, Eggers suggested. And the county is still on the hook to pay $49,000 every month through February 2021 on the original 2001 bed tax allocation of about $12 million that built the stadium, Bill Berger, director of Pinellas County Office of Management and Budget confirmed.

Although a state funding program exists today for retaining spring training, which Dunedin tapped in 2018 for its Toronto Blue Jays stadium renovation, Commissioner Kathleen Peters predicted the political appetite for using public dollars for stadiums will turn this Legislative session.

“Is there a plan B if the state doesn’t come through?” Peters asked Mayor George Cretekos. “I have a general idea that (House Speaker José ) Oliva will not allow any kind of stadium funding. He hasn’t for several years and now that he’s speaker I don’t see that changing. And I don’t know how the governor feels about stadium funding but most of his closest allies are of the same mindset as Speaker Oliva.”

Cretekos said after the meeting that he believes once the city gets its application to the state for $13.7 million, it would be grandfathered-in to the existing spring training retention program even if the Legislature cuts it in the future. That’s why Tuesday’s conceptual approval from the county was so critical to getting that state application filed quickly, he said.

Although Commissioner Janet Long was the only official to vote against the conceptual approval, all commissioners expressed some kind of hesitancy about Clearwater’s request.

Clearwater in June proposed a $79.7 million overhaul for Spectrum Field and the Carpenter training complex to be paid for with $40 million in bed taxes, a 6 percent county tax allocated on hotels and motel stays that fund marketing and capital projects; $16 million of the city’s Penny for Pinellas sales tax revenue; $13.7 million in state funding; and the team paying $10 million and all cost overruns.

Proposed upgrades for Spectrum Field include expanded office space, more workout and training space, a team dining area and a climate-controlled club level. Carpenter Complex improvements include an expansion of the player clubhouse, improved office space and increased field and practice areas.

Since county officials expressed doubt that bed tax dollars, which must be spent on things that impact tourism, could be used for the project’s proposed 160-bed dormitory to house staff and players, that amenity was removed from the city’s formal request letter.

Still, Commissioners Charlie Justice and Pat Gerard said they were not willing to be the majority partner in funding this project. They noted stark differences in Clearwater’s funding request for its relatively new stadium compared to the $41.7 million the county granted Dunedin last year for its $81 million renovation of the aging Toronto Blue Jays facility.

“I too do not want to be the majority funder again and again and again,” Gerard said. “It’s sort of like a revolving charge account here and I don’t think that’s what these funds were designed for.”

Long said she was not interested in funding a stadium until county staff confirmed with certainty whether it would be feasible to use bed tax dollars towards transit projects under a new law that opened up the uses for hotel taxes.

But the Tourist Development Council, which oversees the bed tax program, also received four other requests this month on top of Clearwater’s application for bed tax funding totaling more than $23 million.

Anything the county grants this year would have to be staggered in the future because the Pinellas County Tourist Development Council’s capital program has already committed to pay $99.8 million through 2020 to six new and three ongoing projects.

By the time those commitments are paid, the fund will have only $7.2 million remaining by the end of fiscal year 2020, according to county projections. Tourist Development Tax revenue would replenish the fund to $28 million by the end of 2021.

When asked how the Phillies project would be funded if the county does not grant the full $40 million request, Cretekos was optimistic it wouldn’t come to that.

Besides spring training games, Spectrum Field is also host to the Clearwater Threshers minor league and regular community and charity events.

“We think we can make a strong argument that the $40 million can be justified, that we will get a great return of our investment and it will continue to keep the Phillies and spring training in Clearwater for 25 more years,” Cretekos said. “The stadium isn’t just for the Phillies. It is a community stadium.”

Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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