CLEARWATER — Roughly $6 million in annual bed taxes will be freed up when Pinellas County pays off its share of Tropicana Field next year, money long been viewed as potential revenue source for a new baseball stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays.
But with team owners trying to negotiate permission from St. Petersburg to explore alternative stadium sites, time is running out for the team to claim a share of that money.
Pinellas County commissioners on Tuesday vote on amendments to their tourism development plan that would allow bed taxes to be used for construction of a new aquarium, a move that could open the way for the taxes to go toward Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s $160 million expansion plan.
The move, recommended by the county’s Tourism Development Council, adds aquariums to a list of eligible bed-tax projects that includes convention centers, museums and auditoriums. By state law, bed taxes only can be used for projects that promote or benefit tourism.
“We have a formal request from the Clearwater aquarium project,” Commissioner Ken Welch said. “It allows us to consider TDC funding for a potential aquarium project.”
Further hindering the Rays is that while they are tied up in negotiations, projects competing for a share of the taxes are moving ahead. State lawmakers awarded $2 million for the aquarium project from the state’s proposed $77 billion budget. The $1.2 million lawmakers allocated for a proposed Olympic BMX facility in Oldsmar, however, could mean the city will not apply for bed taxes if the item survives Gov. Rick Scott’s veto pen.
“There are other projects that are lining up,” Welch said. “We can’t hit the pause button while the Rays issues are continually discussed.”
Officials from the Rays Monday did not provide comment.
The final payment on the Trop will be made September 2015, but commissioners could make decisions on applications for bed taxes as soon as early next year, leaving the Rays little time to put together a financing proposal even if negotiations with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman are successful.
“Even if they decide on a new stadium, it will take them years for planning and site development,” Commissioner Charlie Justice said.
Missing out on bed taxes would leave a sizeable funding hole to fill.
While the revenues are small compared to sales or property taxes, the steady revenue stream means local government agencies can sell bonds based on future returns. The $6 million per year that will be freed up in 2015 could raise up to $100 million if bonded over 30 years.
The taxes also are viewed as a crucial part of publicly funding a sports stadiums, not least because the tax is levied on tourists and not residents, making it an easier sell for local politicians concerned about re-election.
The other changes to the county’s tourism plan also make it easier for the county to back bigger tourism projects.
If approved, the maximum amount of annual funding from bed taxes would be raised from $1 million to $4.5 million or 0.75 percent of annual bed tax revenue, whichever is larger. A cap of $500,000 per project would also be abolished.
Justice said he expects that the county still could hear from either the Rays or St. Petersburg officials closer to when the Trop bonds are paid off.
But commissioners already have indicated they are concerned about the possible cuts to federal funding toward beach nourishment projects needed to maintain the county’s renowned shorelines, a tourism priority that would likely trump all others.
“Having a penny dedicated to nourishment may not be the worst thing in the world,” Justice said.