Pinellas County officials plan to offer about $300 million in local tourism taxes to a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium in St. Petersburg.
That would equate to half of the expected $600 million public-funding request. County Commissioners, administrators and Tourist Development Council (TDC) members briefly discussed the project at Thursday morning’s joint meeting.
Administrator Barry Burton, who leads negotiations on the commission’s behalf, expects St. Petersburg city officials to foot their $300 million bill through bonds. Team owner Stuart Sternberg would pay the remaining balance on a $1.2 billion stadium.
“To be able to create the model, we had to put in something,” Burton said. “That’s a reasonable number for plug number. Whether it’s up or down, it’s good for assumptions.”
County leaders gathered at the Sheraton Sand Key Resort in Clearwater Beach to discuss bed tax – a 6% surcharge on hotel stays – expenditures. According to the TDC website, that generated about $90 million last year, with 60% funding marketing initiatives and 40% supporting capital projects that boost tourism.
Commissioners have a slew of capital improvement projects on the docket and recently allocated $25 million for the Dali Museum’s expansion. In addition, Hurricane Idalia washed away large swaths of beaches that officials already considered “critically eroded.”
The Army Corps of Engineers typically covers most of that cost. However, a policy change that requires all adjacent property owners to sign perpetual public easement documents has resulted in an ongoing stalemate between stakeholders.
Kevin Knutson, assistant county administrator, led a presentation on tourism tax and beach renourishment forecasts. Pinellas government expects to accrue $3 billion over the next 40 years.
Administrators based that projection on a “conservative” 3% growth estimate. Burton noted that the county often sees a 5% annual increase in tourism taxes, and the lower number would compensate for inflation or a down year.
“We’re trying to use this as a rough model to give us some comfort level for us to be able to make decisions,” Burton said. “But I would also tell you, there is a way of bringing in other money. Remember, this is at 100% county cost for all 35 miles of beaches. I think this is the very worst-case scenario.”
According to the 40-year forecast, the county would have about $485 million to complete beach and dune renourishment projects. County coffers should also have enough to help fund the Rays stadium, an expansive Philadelphia Phillies baseball complex in Clearwater and the former Toytown landfill’s transformation into a youth sports center.
Commission Chair Janet Long said at an Aug. 16 TDC meeting that she would have “lots of new and very exciting things to share” regarding the Rays stadium in “a couple more weeks.” While that did not materialize Thursday, Commissioner Charlie Justice provided some context after the meeting.
“A couple months ago, I think we were all a little shaken by the Army Corps changing policy implementation,” Justice told the Catalyst. “I think it was, ‘Alright, we’re going to have to make a choice of beach or baseball or any of these other things.
“And so, this gave us some comfort level that we can continue our conversation with the Rays.”
St. Petersburg city officials continue to stick to their previously stated timeline. That would provide city council members with a term sheet to review by the end of summer.
Sept. 23 marks this year’s fall equinox. Justice could not provide a specific date but said, “It could be very soon.”
“I came away with being incredibly encouraged that we’re in a much better financial situation with the tourist development fund than maybe we thought a few months ago,” he added.