Florida Gov. Rick Scott signs the Tourist Development Tax bill into law on June 29 at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Looking on, from left, are Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos; Rep. Larry Ahern (R-St. Petersburg); Rep. Ed Hooper (R-Clearwater); Rep. Jim Frishe (R-St. Petersburg); Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater); and David Yates, CMA CEO.
CLEARWATER – It may have been a Friday afternoon, but Clearwater Marine Aquarium was bursting at the seams.
Winter, the famous dolphin with a prosthetic tail, seemed to smile as she popped up out of the water to see what was going on. The swarm of tourists was normal. But there was a special guest that day.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed House Bill 1015, the Tourist Development Tax bill, at CMA on June 29. This bill provides for proceeds of tourist development taxes to be used for the benefit of certain aquariums and other select facilities.
“Tourism is the No. 1 industry – 86 million tourists last year,” Scott said. “It was up 4.4 percent. Every 85 tourists create one job. So it’s a lot of jobs. While we’ve had a big success and unemployment has dropped faster than any other state but one, we still have 800,000 people out of work. Stories like Dolphin Tale, Winter’s story, Rufus, the success of this aquarium, that’s what Florida is all about. And so if we can do things like this and take tourist tax dollars and help improve this and create more tourists, that’s great and it’s a great story.”
The law particularly helps aquariums and other tourist-driven, county-owned or nonprofit facilities. Scott, many local politicians, and David Yates – CMA CEO – all said at the bill signing how proud they are of this bill so it creates more opportunities to make these facilities even better and bring in even more tourists.
“The big opportunity is here. Just look around. Look at all these tourists,” Scott said, gesturing at all the people packed into the aquarium. “Tourists are I think about 22 percent of all our sales tax dollars. Your state is funded by sales tax dollars and property tax dollars, so if we can continue to promote more tourism, we can have more jobs and afford the safety nets we want, whether it’s a health care safety net or elder care, education, all those things.”
Clearwater City Councilman Bill Jonson said it was exciting to have the governor there and that this law is going to be great for the area.
“This will really help the aquarium get a dividend out of their investment,” Jonson said. “They’re the ones bringing so many people to the area. We have many opportunities here to freshen the center up and make it more attractive for visitors, and I hope they are able to do that. You look around and you see all the people here on a Friday, and they’re busting at the seams. So we like people to come visit us and see the dolphins and the other animals here and learn about sea life rehabilitation. With the exception of Winter, the goal is to be able to release them back to their natural environment. So that’s the goal of this facility. And we’d like to have everybody come and support it.”
Under the new law, tourism taxes – also called the “bed tax,” – may be used by the county for four areas of purposes, including the following:
“To acquire, construct, extend, enlarge, remodel, repair, improve, maintain, operate or promote one or more publicly owned and operated convention centers, sports stadiums, sports arenas, coliseums, auditoriums, aquariums, or museums that are publicly owned and operated or owned and operated by not-for-profit organizations and open to the public, within the boundaries of the county…” the law states.
Tax revenues also may be used to promote zoological parks that are publicly owned or not-for-profit and are open to the public.
The second allowable use is to “promote and advertise tourism in the state of Florida and nationally and internationally,” the bill states. “However, if tax revenues are expended for an activity, service, venue, or event, the activity, service, venue or event shall have as one of its main purposes the attraction of tourists as evidenced…”
The third area is to fund convention bureaus, tourist bureaus, tourist information centers, and news bureaus as county agencies or in contract with chambers of commerce.
The final area is to fund beaches, beach park facilities, or beach improvement, maintenance, renourishment, restoration, and erosion control. It also can include the restoration of inland lakes and rivers in which there is public access. However, if funds identified by a county as a local matching source in certain areas that are included in the long-range budget plan of the state’s Beach Management Plan or funds contractually obligated by a county in its financial plan may not be used or loaned for any other purpose.
The law went into effect after Scott signed it into law.