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Nearly $40 million in bed tax to fund five Pinellas County projects

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium was the big winner in bed tax funding. Pinellas commissioners approved $26 million toward the $66 million expansion of the aquarium’s site on Island Estates.
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium was the big winner in bed tax funding. Pinellas commissioners approved $26 million toward the $66 million expansion of the aquarium’s site on Island Estates.
Published Aug. 16, 2017

CLEARWATER — Nearly $40 million in taxes paid by visitors in hotels, motels and other overnight rentals will help fund five major Pinellas County projects over the next three years.

The County Commission on Tuesday approved $26 million for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium; $6 million for the Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement; $5.5 million for Ruth Eckerd Hall; $1.9 million for the Countryside Sports Complex; and $495,000 for the Eddie C. Moore Softball Complex.

A contract for up to $46 million in Tourist Development Council bed tax funding for the Toronto Blue Jays spring training complex is still being negotiated and is expected to be voted on by the commission at a later date.

Commissioners acknowledged the TDC's process of vetting and negotiating applications did not provide a reliable formula to calculate the spending's economic impact. But Commissioner Charlie Justice said the 6 percent tax has an important role.

"I see this as a chance for the tourists to help contribute to projects that are going to benefit not only tourism, which I think it will, but also to enhance the quality of life for our residents and take some of that tax burden off," Justice said.

Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the marketing agency for Pinellas County, will be able to use each of the venues for promotional tourism efforts — from being granted permanent space in the lobbies for a welcome center, to showing videos of local attractions on screens inside and audio announcements during events.

The funds will be awarded as reimbursements, and each agency must submit proof of expenditures before receiving the money. But the commission on Tuesday added a "right to audit" clause to each contract, giving the county "added protection," Visit St. Pete/Clearwater chief operating officer Tim Ramsberger said.

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium's award will go toward the $66 million expansion of its site on Island Estates, including five new dolphin pools, a 376-space parking garage, elevated viewing areas and 102,000 square feet of additional guest space.

Most of the parking garage has been completed, and the aquarium is working to finalize county and city grants to secure construction financing. The Clearwater City Council is expected to vote on a $5 million funding request next month.

The Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement, a $70 million project under construction on Fourth Street N in St. Petersburg, will receive its $6 million in bed tax over the next three years.

The project aims to "promote an understanding of the American Arts and Crafts movement through the acquisition, conservation, preservation, exhibition and interpretation of the decorative and fine arts." Commissioners Janet Long, John Morroni and Karen Seel voted against the funding award.

The $5.5 million in bed tax to Ruth Eckerd Hall is a win for the nonprofit after its $1 million request for state funds was vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott in June.

The performing arts center is undergoing a $17 million renovation to construct a 6,000-square-foot grand lobby, a 250-seat cabaret theater, improvements to parking and infrastructure, and other upgrades.

About $495,000 in upgrades to fields and broadcast amenities to the Eddie C. Moore Softball Complex have already been completed, in part to attract the national and international tournaments that were held there last month. The award was a previously discussed plan between county and city officials to secure this year's tournaments and future events, Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos said.

Commissioner Pat Gerard voted against funding the project because it has already been completed.

The $1.9 million for the Countryside Sports Complex will pay for new restrooms, a press box, field renovations, elevated bleachers and other improvements to attract Major League Soccer teams for spring training, according to the application.

Cretekos said he sees the investments having countywide impact, with visitors who attend sporting events in the city venturing to the county's beaches and restaurants and returning for vacations.

"We're competing not only with other states to bring tourists to our state, we're competing with the world," Cretekos said.

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.