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State budget backs Clearwater aquarium, Oldsmar BMX track


Published:   |   Updated: May 5, 2014 at 11:45 AM

The state of Florida might be among the first financial backers of a new downtown aquarium in Clearwater with $2 million committed in the coming year’s budget.

The Florida Legislature’s $77 billion budget finalized on Friday also will include $1.27 million to jump-start the city of Oldsmar’s plan to build an Olympic-class BMX bicycle track.

The biggest project for the area by far, though, stretches beyond the Tampa Bay area: $26.5 million for a bicycle trail that ultimately will run from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott nixed last year’s effort to get $50 million to fully fund the Coast to Coast Connector Trail, a pet project of future Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, that will fill in gaps of a 275-mile bike path from St. Petersburg to Titusville.

The governor later showed up at the ground-breaking of a smaller, $3.6 million section of the trail in Titusville, where he waxed eloquent about the completed trail’s effect on tourism.

“Just think about how great that will be and all the tourists who will come here for that reason,” Scott said at the ceremony.

It’s unknown if Scott, up for re-election this year and with a larger budget surplus than in 2013, might be inclined to preserve the trail and other special projects in competitive parts of the state such as Pinellas County.

The money approved as part of the Department of Transportation Work Program will be used to build missing links between numerous bike and pedestrian paths from the Pinellas Trail across Central Florida.

Other Pinellas County projects fared well in this year’s budget negotiations:

♦ University of South Florida St. Petersburg is scheduled to get $10 million for a new College of Business, and St. Petersburg College Bay Pines has $2.5 million coming for marine science labs.

♦ All Children’s Hospital is set to get $2 million to develop a pediatric research zone with Johns Hopkins.

♦  The Largo Cultural Center, Dunedin Fine Art Center, the Tarpon Springs Performing Arts Center and the Mahaffey Theatre in St. Petersburg each are slated to receive $500,000 for a variety of improvement and expansion plans.

This is the second year in a row Clearwater Marine Aquarium has been the beneficiary of state funding. Last year the aquarium got $5 million to pay for production and marketing associated with last fall’s filming of “Dolphin Tale 2.”

The governor was among attendees when the aquarium announced that Alcon Entertainment was moving forward with the sequel to the popular family film.

Scott said the movie has been a boon for tourism in Pinellas County and the state as a whole, resulting in many jobs during the film shoot and at the aquarium as attendance has grown since the release of the first film in 2011.

Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, has been championing the aquarium’s case for more money in support of its $160-million plan to build a new marine center on the site of the existing city hall in downtown Clearwater.

“Dolphin Tale 2,” which comes out this fall, will feature even more Pinellas beach scenes, including ones from Clearwater Beach and Fort De Soto. And the influx of tourists to a new aquarium will pay dividends back to Florida’s travel industry for years to come, aquarium CEO David Yates said.

“That facility will allow us to attract and draw even more people and really maintain the movie’s impact on tourism on a long-term basis,” he said.

Last year a measure sponsored by Sen. Jack Latvala tweaked the state’s Tourist Development Tax law to allow county bed tax dollars to be used for aquariums, opening the door for Clearwater Marine Aquarium to seek additional funds through the county.

State support this year for Oldsmar’s BMX track project will mean the city’s urgent request for help from Pinellas County’s Tourist Development Council can be put to rest.

Mayor Doug Bevis has made impassioned pleas in recent months for the county to match Oldsmar’s $1 million investment to expedite the construction of a $2 million supercross competition track.

Officials with the sport’s governing body, USA BMX, have said they favor Oldsmar as the location for one of the only Olympic level tracks in the United States, which could bring competitions and teams from around the world to the area for training.

That distinction is in danger of shifting to Sarasota County, which has put aside money to build a BMX supercross track — if Oldsmar doesn’t begin construction during the next year, Bevis has said.

The Tourist Development Council opted to hold off on considering the funding request until the state budget was finalized.

jboatwright@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-1277

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