Baseball Vs Beaches: Pinellas County Commissioners Discuss How To Spend Tourist Tax Funds

At a recent workshop, the commissioners discussed that if it comes to funding a beach renovation or a new stadium, tough action will be taken.

ST. SAINT PETERSBURG, Florida. By the end of the summer, the county expects to know how much the Gas Works Historic District redevelopment project will cost. This project includes a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays Major League baseball team.

Given the inevitable high price tag, the district commissioners are discussing a choice between the projects they fund.

You may be wondering what the beach renovation has to do with the new baseball stadium. It comes down to money. In Pinellas County, both the beach renovation and the Gas Works Historic District project are funded by the Tourism Development Tax Fund.

On Thursday, county commissioners met for a business meeting to get an update on beach renewal plans. Beach renewal is when sand is dug up from the shore and then pumped onto our beaches to replace the sand that leaches naturally. The upgrade is part of a federally funded storm protection project overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Kelly Levy, director of public works, offered several options.

“The last option was that the county would fund all of this without any help from the Army Corps,” Levy said. “And that, of course, puts us in the red very quickly and is not sustainable.”

Pinellas County is a local sponsor of the federal project. The three upgrade projects include Sand Key, Long Key, and Treasure Island. In all projects, the Army Corps covers half or more of the cost of the project. The county has also applied for state grants to help cover its share.

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The Sand Key Renovation Project has been put on hold indefinitely due to a new requirement by the Army Corps that there will be indefinite easements on property from private owners in the areas of the renewal. 100% match required. And 100 percent of homeowners are unwilling to transfer title to their property.

The army corps did not budge as requested. The county is now considering several options for moving forward, including financing the entire project. This led to a conversation about other projects that will soon have to be funded.

“We’re going to have decisions, maybe in the next few weeks, months, that really depend on the bed tax portion, which, as you know, is really not possible,” Commissioner Charlie Justice said. “You can’t do any of that in silos and then wake up the next day and go, I wish we had this money to spend on the beach. We don’t have them anymore.”

He has in mind the project of the gas works area. A few minutes later, a new baseball stadium was explicitly mentioned.

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“We’re talking about spending $600 million on a brand new stadium,” Commission Chair Janet Long said. “Or $200 million to keep our beaches clean. What are you laughing at? Am I wrong?

The cost of the redevelopment project is not yet known. The city of St. Petersburg will publish its draft conditions this summer. What is also not yet known is whether the Army Corps of Engineers will work with the district to improve the beaches.

“The bottom line is we have one piggy bank and we’re all trying to get a lot of money out of it,” Public Works Director Kelly Levy said. “And when there’s nothing left, you know, we’re going to struggle to find ways to pay for all these things that people want.”

The money the county decides to spend on the new stadium will affect how much money is left for other projects, including beach renovations.

Pinellas County has a very good reason to work with the Army Corps rather than trying to fund a beach renovation on its own. Because this is a federally approved project, with no real estate easements, the Army Corps would not help with repairs after the storm. The county will also not be eligible for reimbursement from FEMA.

In the fall, the City of St. Petersburg plans to unveil a development agreement it has partnered with Pinellas County and the developer. It will be submitted to City Council for approval.

Malik Rankin is a general-purpose reporter for 10 Tampa Bay. You can email her ideas to [email protected] and follow her on Facebook. Twitterand Instagram pages.

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