That the Tampa Bay Rays will ask for Pinellas County tourist tax dollars to help build a new stadium is almost a sure thing. The questions, for now, are when and how much?
And then, once a request has been put to the Pinellas County Commission: What else? As in, what other projects are vying for the same pot of money?
That pot is the 6% tax on hotel stays and short-term rentals — anything less than six months — that in the 2022 calendar year yielded $95.8 million for the county. Of those tax dollars, 40% can go to capital projects that would drive tourism (the other 60% funds tourism marketing). It’s money that can only be used for tourism-generating projects, County Administrator Barry Burton noted.
“You can’t use it to pave a road, you can’t use it to hire a cop, you can’t use it for general government operating,” he said.
The County Commission has the say on whether or not to fund such projects, with advice from the county’s Tourist Development Council. More than a month and a half after St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch picked a developer for the stadium and the redevelopment of the 86 acres around it, though, the commission is still waiting for a request.
Burton has “been in discussions for a long time with the Rays,” he said, and those talks continue. But the city has to figure out funding for those 86 acres, where it hasn’t indicated it’ll seek county help.
“Both of those pieces kind of have to come together, and I don’t know where the city is on that,” Burton said.
Some other projects have already sought or signaled interest in tourist tax dollars, though, and more have been floated more tentatively, meaning that when the County Commission does have a request to consider, its members will have to decide what their priorities are.
Here’s a look at some of those projects.
Phillies spring training site
The Rays may be the only MLB team playing home games in Pinellas County from April through September, but the Philadelphia Phillies have some of the deepest baseball roots here: Clearwater has been their spring training home since 1947.
Last fall, the organization started talking to local officials about a massive revamp that could turn its spring training facility into a year-round player development site — and could cost as much as $300 million. Though Burton said he expects the team and Clearwater will ask the county to chip in, he hasn’t received a request yet.
Frank Hibbard, then Clearwater’s mayor, said last year that he wouldn’t be shy in looking for bed tax money, arguing that his city brings in the biggest chunk of those dollars and that it would be reasonable to expect the county to allocate accordingly. It’s not yet clear whether Hibbard’s sudden resignation Monday will affect an eventual pursuit of tax dollars. County Commissioner Chris Latvala, whose district includes Clearwater, said when asked about Rays funding last month that the city “(deserves) to have our share kept here.”
Dalí Museum expansion
In 2019, Pinellas agreed to put $17.5 million toward a $39 million expansion of the Dalí Museum, one of the most recognizable features of the St. Petersburg waterfront and one that derives most of its traffic from tourists. Then the pandemic hit, construction costs climbed and the details of the expansion changed. Now the price tag stands at $55 million, half of which the museum wants to get from the county.
Pinellas officials see beach nourishment — the process of pumping fresh sand onto the county’s eroded beaches every several years — as crucial to protecting the beaches as natural habitats, storm buffers and drivers of tourism.
The sand-pumping is done by the Army Corps of Engineers, which takes on nearly two-thirds of the project cost (set at $42 million for nourishment scheduled for next year), leaving the county and state to split the rest. That county funding comes from a portion of the tourist tax set aside only for beach nourishment, Burton said.
But Pinellas and the Corps are in the midst of a yearslong stalemate over a Corps policy that would require beachfront property owners to sign permanent easements, which many aren’t willing to do. The 2024 nourishment won’t happen on schedule, and even if the Corps had a change of heart right now, it likely wouldn’t happen until 2025 or 2026, county Public Works Director Kelli Levy said recently.
If the Corps won’t budge, Pinellas officials will have to decide whether they’re willing to pay to pursue beach nourishment on their own. The cost would depend on how much the state would match, Burton said. But it could mean more bed tax money than what’s already set aside going to beach nourishment.
County commissioners and members of the Tourist Development Council saw a lot to like last month when they got a look at two possible models for making Pinellas a destination in the booming youth sports industry. A consultant’s estimates pegged the cost of a 66-acre complex at $48 million, and a 120-acre one at $78 million. That doesn’t include the cost of finding a site that’s big enough in land-strapped Pinellas: The former Toytown landfill site is the only place large enough for the bigger model, and studying the site and doing needed remediation — if possible — would tack on many millions more.
Some of those in attendance signaled that the idea would hold more water if the Rays’ pursuit of a new St. Petersburg stadium falls apart and the county needs a new sports tourism draw.
“If the Rays do not stay here, we should be looking for options to expand our attraction for tourism and sports,” County Commissioner Charlie Justice said during that meeting. “I’d like to know that before we pull the trigger on what the next thing is.”