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Dalí Museum won’t get full expansion funding from Pinellas — for now, at least

Citing uncertainty over beach renourishment and other major projects, county commissioners granted the museum $25 million, not the $34 million it had sought.
 
An unidentified man walks past palm trees reflected in glass panels in 2019 at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg. On Tuesday, Pinellas County voted to put $25 million in tourist-tax funding toward the museum's planned expansion, less than the $34 million the museum had asked for.
An unidentified man walks past palm trees reflected in glass panels in 2019 at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg. On Tuesday, Pinellas County voted to put $25 million in tourist-tax funding toward the museum's planned expansion, less than the $34 million the museum had asked for. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Aug. 1, 2023|Updated Aug. 2, 2023

Pinellas County will help fund a planned expansion of the Salvador Dalí Museum, but for now its contribution will be $9 million less than the St. Petersburg institution had requested.

County commissioners on Tuesday voted to put $25 million in tourist-tax funding toward the project, which is designed to add 60,000 square feet of space, most of it focused on education and immersive experiences, to the Dalí. The museum had asked for $34 million, half of the expansion’s total price tag.

The county’s Tourist Development Council recommended in May that the county fulfill the full request, despite a Visit St. Pete-Clearwater staff report that suggested $25 million in funding. That figure was based on how much they anticipated the expansion boosting the bed-tax revenue that funds projects like the Dalí expansion.

Several commissioners were wary of dedicating as much money as the Dalí is looking for, they said Tuesday, largely because of uncertainty around how the county will have to spend tourism money in the near future.

The biggest question mark concerns the replenishment of the county’s eroded beaches amid a yearslong standoff between the county and the Army Corps of Engineers. The county has started to consider paths forward that don’t involve the Corps, but they would be costly. Meanwhile, it’s still waiting on requests for a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium and an overhaul of the Philadelphia Phillies’ spring training site in Clearwater.

County Administrator Barry Burton said Pinellas just brought in a consulting firm to dig deeper into the beach renourishment options, but it will take time.

“I don’t think it should hold off moving forward with some of these projects,” he said.

An expansion to the Dalí has been in the works, in various forms, for several years. In 2019, the County Commission approved $17.5 million toward what was then a $40 million project, much of it focused on parking. But the pandemic hit before work could begin, and the Dalí never got any of that money.

“Part of our revamping of our request was to create new assets that would appeal to a broader demographic, that would appeal to younger people and people who are not accustomed to going to art museums,” the museum’s executive director, Hank Hine, told commissioners Tuesday. “We have adjusted to that because of the problems of the pandemic and cultural shifts, economic shifts in this country.”

Commissioners acknowledged the money the county had promised for the previous version of the expansion, and none wanted to renege on that, though some were hesitant to offer anything more: Commissioner Chris Latvala said he “was prepared to not support anything above” $17.5 million. Others signaled a willingness to spend the full $34 million.

Commissioner Kathleen Peters suggested funding the project at the level tourism staff had recommended, but allowing the Dalí to come back and ask for more once the county figures out what to do about its beaches.

“There’s no question the Dalí is probably one of the very best museums in this country, in my opinion,” she said. “It’s an amazing museum and it does bring people here. It’s just not arguable.”

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Peters’ motion passed 5-2, with Latvala and Dave Eggers voting against it.

Doing a scaled-down expansion for a scaled-down cost isn’t feasible for the museum, Hine said. The museum’s builders have told him that site preparation alone will consume about three-quarters of the budget. And he stressed that time was a major factor: Four years on from the county’s first funding promise, and two from when the museum started rethinking its expansion, he doesn’t want to lose interest from donors. The museum will need them to cover its half — or more — of the project.

Hine said he could accept Peters’ proposal, “given an obvious difficult situation here,” but he encouraged commissioners to look at the museum as a sure bet for tourism.

“We are the bird in hand,” he said. “We’re the proven cultural driver in the area. We are filling the coffers.”