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Hillsborough closes in on ability to raise bed tax, which could help fund Tampa Bay Rays stadium

TAMPA — Hillsborough County is ahead of schedule for meeting the $30 million bed tax threshold that it needs to become a "high impact tourism" area — a designation that could bring an important funding source for a new Tampa Bay Rays baseball stadium.

Between January and July, visitors paid $19.45 million in taxes for the county, which are used to attract more tourists to the region. That's up 8.9 percent from that point last year. In all of 2015, the county brought in $27.8 million.

July was an exceptionally strong month, however, beating last year's numbers by 13.4 percent, according to Visit Tampa Bay, the county's tourism agency.

"Even if it dips below what we are currently projecting we should still make it," said Patrick Harrison, the vice president of marketing and communications for Visit Tampa Bay.

The existing bed tax is a 5 percent tax on hotels and other lodging establishments. If Hillsborough County secures the "high impact tourism" distinction by the state, it is authorized to raise that bed tax to 6 cents — which could mean an extra $6 million in revenue for development projects like a new stadium.

"It's huge," County Commissioner Ken Hagan said earlier this year about the levy, which is expected to be an important piece of funding if the county decides to finance a new stadium. Five of the seven county commissioners must vote to increase the bed tax.

Meanwhile, Pinellas County has collected more than $43 million since its 6 percent bed tax went into effect Jan. 1 this year. It was named a high impact tourism county in 2013.

To be sure Hillsborough County surpasses the $30 million threshold, Visit Tampa Bay this week is launching a fall advertising campaign to attract visitors from Chicago, Dallas and Orlando for spontaneous weekend getaways.

A branch of the agency's "Florida's Most" campaign, the fall advertisements are geared to couples and groups of friends rather than families, who book travel further in advance.

"We want to make sure we drive that traffic through in the last couple of months of the year," Harrison said. "We are confident and should be able to stay on track."

Contact Alli Knothe at Follow @KnotheA.