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Monday, Apr 24, 2017
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Hillsborough County is bittersweet about Florida's record tourism year

TAMPA — Despite a sixth straight record-breaking year for Florida tourism, Hillsborough County has reason for a bittersweet celebration. The county has missed its bid to snag an extra $6 million in estimated tourism taxes this year, money that could have been used to lure the Tampa Bay Rays away from St. Petersburg.

Hillsborough collected $29.9 million in tourism bed taxes during the 2016 calendar year, falling just shy of the $30 million threshold needed in order to be considered a "high tourism impact" county. That designation would have given county commissioners the option of raising the bed tax from 5 percent to 6 percent, resulting in additional tax revenue which county commissioners said was a key component in their attempt to bring the Rays across the bay.

The Rays are seeking a location for a stadium to replace their aging home at Tropicana Field in downtown St. Petersburg. Rays spokeswoman Rafaela Amador on Thursday declined to comment on how Thursday's news could affect the team's decision.

"The state numbers were weak in December," said Patrick Harrison, spokesman for Visit Tampa Bay, the county's tourism agency. "This was the best year Visit Tampa Bay has ever had — by far — and that's the message we're going by."

Previous coverage: Hillsborough closes in on ability to raise bed tax, which could help fund Tampa Bay Rays stadium

Bed taxes are collected on hotel rooms, rentals, RV parks and campgrounds and can be used for the county's tourism marketing efforts and to support museums, convention centers and stadiums.

Visit Tampa Bay had planned to pass the threshold by 2018, and noted that reaching it last year would have been ahead of schedule.

Nonetheless, agency representatives had been saying throughout the year that they were confident that 2016 would be the year.

"Even if it dips below what we are currently projecting, we should still make it," Harrison said in September. From January to July, bed tax revenue was up 8.9 percent from that point in 2015. But that progress apparently slowed, and the county wrapped up 2016 about 7.6 percent over the prior year.

"That they were off by $100,000 this year was just a matter of timing," said David Downing, executive director for Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, Pinellas County's tourism agency.

Pinellas County collected $52 million worth of bed taxes in 2016. It qualified as a "high tourism impact" county in 2013, but county commissioners did not vote to raise the tax to 6 percent until 2015.

In December, the Hillsborough County Tax Collector's office reached an agreement with Airbnb to collect bed taxes and sales taxies on rooms booked through the website. That deal went into effect on Feb. 1 and is projected to generate about $250,000 in tax revenues this year.

Florida drew nearly 113 million visitors in 2016, up from about 107 million in 2015.

"Last year, Florida was challenged like never before as we faced the Zika virus, two hurricanes and the terror attack at Pulse Nightclub," Gov. Rick Scott said in a statement. "In the face of adversity, we continued in our mission to promote our great state and thanks to the hard work of Visit Florida, we continue to see record visitors to Florida."

Scott, who unveiled the numbers during a Thursday morning event at the Brevard Zoo, used the occasion to reiterate his call for continued funding of Visit Florida, which markets tourism statewide.

House Republicans are backing a proposal to shut down the state's public/private agency amid questionable contracts, such as one that paid rap star Pitbull $1 million to promote the state. The lawmakers, led by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, also want to get rid of Enterprise Florida, a statewide agency that uses tax incentives to help lure companies to Florida and keep others here.

Previous coverage: Gov. Rick Scott visits Tampa to defend economic incentives, tourism programs

Scott, who has been traveling across Florida in ardent defense of both Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida, indicated he was dumbfounded by the moves of his fellow Republicans — especially after the latest tourism numbers.

"I don't understand how anyone can look at Florida's booming tourism industry, and the more than 1.4 million jobs it supports, and vote to kill it," he said. "The legislation the Florida House is pushing puts more than 1.4 million jobs at risk and we cannot let that happen."

Contact Alli Knothe at aknothe@tampabay.com. Follow @KnotheA.

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