ST. PETERSBURG — A group of local business leaders and Realtors backing Greenlight Pinellas say they are on track to raise more than $1 million to persuade residents to back the mass transit plan, and a new poll shows support for Greenlight is growing.
Friends of Greenlight made headlines after raising almost $500,000 in little more than six weeks after first forming a political committee. But donations since have been more modest, with only $31,500 raised during the first 20 days of June and about $37,000 during May.
With four months left until the Nov. 4 referendum, the group has raised about $562,000 toward its $1 million target. But Campaign Manager Joe Farrell said there are more pledged contributions to come in and he remains confident the group will at least hit its goal.
“I think overall we did pretty well because our commitments are still out there; it’s just taking some time for our commitments to come through the door,” he said. “We do plan on going over a million dollars. Exactly how high we will go I’m not sure.”
The group also has been buoyed by a new internal poll that shows support for Greenlight at almost 60 percent compared with 35 percent opposed. The poll of 402 likely voters, conducted by Gainesville-based Strategic Guidance Systems in early June with an error margin of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points, shows markedly stronger support for Greenlight than other recent local polls.
“That is exact ballot language so we feel very good about those numbers,” said Joel Searby, SGS director of marketing and business management.
The single largest donation to Friends of Greenlight in June was $25,000 from Parsons Brinckerhoff, a New York-based engineering and construction firm. Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority CEO Brad Miller donated $1,000 and Karen Seel, chairwoman of the Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners, gave $200.
The group has spent $66,000 so far, but that is set to change soon with TV and radio advertisements planned to run possibly as soon as next month and a mail campaign in the works, Farrell said.
Campaign volunteers are knocking on 2,500 doors every weekend, said Chris Steinocher, campaign co-chairman and St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce president and CEO.
The group’s campaign war chest dwarfs that of opponents No Tax for Tracks, which raised $105 in the most recent three-week reporting period, bringing its total contributions to roughly $31,000. It has spent $22,000 of that money.
No Tax Campaign Manager Barbara Haselden said the group can raise more money and has $5,000 more coming in by the next reporting deadline July 11.
“We have seen so many other efforts around the nation where the grass roots don’t have much money to work with but win these tax increase fights,” she said.
“They will have a war chest and we will be warriors,” she said.
If approved, the $2.2 billion Greenlight plan would expand bus service 65 percent, give buses priorities in some key county corridors and develop a 24-mile light-rail link between the downtowns of Clearwater and St. Petersburg.
The money would come from a one penny sales tax increase, which would bring in about $130 million a year. A property tax that brings in about $30 million to PSTA would be eliminated.
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Proponents say the plan will give residents more transit choices, attract businesses and kick start a new wave of development in built-out Pinellas. Critics describe the plan as a taxpayer-funded boondoggle to benefit Realtors and developers, and fear the county will be saddled with an underused, expensive transit system.
No Tax received a recent boost when the North Pinellas Regional Chamber of Commerce last week became the first local chamber to publicly oppose the Greenlight plan, saying it was questionable whether many of its business members in the north county area would benefit.
More than 10 local chambers including those in Clearwater, Dunedin, Palm Harbor, Safety Harbor and Central Pinellas publicly have backed the plan as have leaders of nine Pinellas cities. It also has support from local community groups, including the NAACP and the Sierra Club.
Friends of Greenlight plans to continue fundraising up to the election with events and email solicitations, Farrell said.
“It’s the weeks before July 4. School is out and people are on vacation,” he said. “I would expect to see things really heating up in the next month or two.”