CLEARWATER — Pinellas County hit a tourism sales landmark in 2013, placing it among the state’s top destinations, but the absence of a top name-brand resort and a fading commercial corridor through many beach towns continue to hamper the area’s full potential.
Those were two of the top issues identified by tourism officials Thursday at a meeting to discuss millions of dollars in bed tax dollars expected to come available in future years.
About $6 million a year will be freed up when the county pays off bonds on Tropicana Field in 2015, and projects are already making requests such as the Clearwater Marine Aquarium or an Olympic BMX track in Oldsmar.
After exceeding a state benchmark of $600 million in hotel sales last year, the county also may consider increasing the bed tax levied on overnight hotel stays from 5 to 6 percent, adding another $6 million a year.
At a meeting of the Pinellas County Tourist Development Council in Clearwater on Thursday, several hoteliers and city officials floated the idea of using a portion of that money to attract more branded, high-end development on the beach.
“We’re one of the largest tourism destinations in the state of Florida and we don’t have a Ritz-Carlton or a Waldorf,” said D.T. Minich, director of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Convention & Visitors Bureau.
State law doesn’t allow for the bed tax to be used to directly fund such a project, Minich added, so the best the county’s tourism agency could do is promote the area’s growth to interested developers.
While Clearwater Beach has had success in raising the profile, and rates, of its lodgings by making building regulations friendlier for high-end properties such as the Sandpearl and Hyatt, lingering opposition to growth continues to prevent the same from happening in the county’s second-largest beach community, St. Pete Beach, said Russ Kimball, general manager of the Sheraton Sand Key resort in Clearwater Beach.
“The opportunities are there and there’s proof of why those hotels are being built on Clearwater Beach and not on St. Pete Beach,” he said.
The council also discussed the need for putting aside additional bed tax funds for beach renourishment and investing more in facilities for sports tourism.
Next week, they will vote on proposed changes to funding criteria for so-called Elite Events such as the Firestone Grand Prix race in St. Petersburg that would require more detailed and uniform reporting about ticket sales and other measures of tourism sales.