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Pinellas could raise bed tax to help pay for Rays stadium

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Published:   |   Updated: August 9, 2013 at 10:21 AM

CLEARWATER — Funding discussions for a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium are sprouting on both sides of the bay as Pinellas leaders broached the subject of a possible bed tax increase Thursday and Hillsborough leaders planned to meet on the issue today.

Pinellas leaders heard about an opportunity to raise the county's 5 percent tourism development tax by 1 percent Thursday during a discussion of the bed tax at a joint meeting of the county commission and the Tourist Development Council. The panel also discussed revenue from the tax that will become available in 2015 when Tropicana field debt is paid off.

But some members of the tourist council think those dollars should go solely toward efforts to market and promote Pinellas County tourism or partially fund beach renourishment.

“I always have a concern that bed tax money is going to continue to be allocated for anything other than marketing the destination,” said Tony Satterfield, vice president of operations at St. Pete Beach resort Alden Suites.

Entities, including the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and a BMX park in Oldsmar, have been lining up for some of the revenue from the tax on short-term accommodations that will become available in 2015.

And the money could be needed for beach renourishment, especially since federal and state funding for such projects is not guaranteed indefinitely.

“I'm afraid that the beach renourishment money could be dried up really quickly,” said Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos. “And when you talk about what puts heads in beds, it's the beaches.”

The bed tax is expected to bring in $30 million this year. Increasing it by 1 percent could bring in an additional $6 million annually, much of which could fund bonds for a new stadium.

The funding issue came up this week after St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster softened his stance on allowing the club to look elsewhere, namely Hillsborough County, before the team's contract to play at Tropicana runs out in 2027.

By state law, the county will likely be considered a “high intensity” destination as of this year and thus qualify for a bed tax increase, Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala said. Most counties with a bed tax are legally capped at five percent, except for those with the biggest tourism economies. To be considered a high intensity destination a county must pull in more than $600 million in annual sales from hotel rooms, short-term rentals and other businesses that are subject to the bed tax.

“It was really a revelation that we'll be eligible for that money based on sales and tourism,” said County Commission Chair Ken Welch. “I think everything is on the table at this point, and I think that's another revenue source that can help us get to funding that kind of project.”

Meanwhile, Hillsborough leaders are wasting little time preparing for a possible future bid for the Tampa Bay Rays. County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan on Thursday said he and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn will meet at 10 a.m. today at the Tampa municipal office building to discuss a potential new committee that would meet with Rays executives. The two will meet informally about how to proceed with the committee, after which Buckhorn will answer questions from the media.

Earlier this week, Hagan said he expected the committee to include himself, Buckhorn, private businesspeople and members of the Tampa Sports Authority and Tampa Bay Partnership. The group initially would ask the Rays about their long-term needs, but it could lead to discussing potential stadium sites with the team.

Pinellas leaders are hoping the team will consider a stadium site in Pinellas County's Gateway area, but members of the tourist council insist that they won't reserve highly competitive bed tax revenue — or raise the tax — for the team if it doesn't ask for it soon.

“We certainly don't want to take the money that we'll have after 2015 and just stash it, waiting for the Rays to say something as opposed to using it for things that it could be used for,” said St. Petersburg City Councilwoman Leslie Curran.

If the tourist council decides it wants to raise the bed tax, it would face final county commission approval by five of the seven commissioners.

The two Pinellas groups are planning a “visioning session” this fall, during which they will try to develop consensus on where the bed tax money should go for years to come.

“The key here is that we all try to come together as to what the future could and should look like,” said Tim Bogott, CEO of the Tradewinds Resort on St. Pete Beach. “I think the stadium is certainly a piece of that puzzle.”

Tribune reporter Michael Sasso contributed to this report.

kbradshaw@tampatrib.com

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Twitter: @kbradshawTBO

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