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County, beaches spar over tourism money

The tourism council wants to borrow beach renourishment money. Hands off, says the beaches chamber.

By AMY WIMMER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 18, 2002

CLEARWATER -- Tourism tax collections are down compared to projections, hotels are more vacant than their owners want them to be, and tourist-reliant businesses are trying to bounce back from the effects of Sept. 11.

But instead of rallying together, why are some of the county's most prominent tourism professionals pleading with each other to avoid "sniping, back-stabbing and nit-picking," as County Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd put it?

On one side is the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Convention and Visitors Bureau, funded through one-half of one of the four cents that each Pinellas visitor pays in bed tax. Facing a $2.5-million budget shortfall for next year, the bureau wants to balance its budget by borrowing money from the county's beach renourishment fund.

On the other side are some of the county's chambers of commerce, particularly the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber, which also promote Pinellas tourism and question whether the convention and visitors bureau looked closely at its own spending before eyeing the beach fund.

Doreen Moore, president-elect of the beaches chamber and a city commissioner in Madeira Beach, likens the idea to "killing the proverbial golden goose." The decision would send a poor message to the federal government, which is debating whether to continue funding about half the cost of renourishment.

"Don't touch that money," said Debbie Stambaugh, president and chief executive officer of the beaches chamber. "That's sacred money. It funds the most precious asset we have."

County commissioners will vote Tuesday on whether to allow the loan, which the Tourist Development Council would pay back with interest over three years. County officials would have about $7-million left in the fund after the loan, so they say it would not slow or stop any beach project.

"If beach renourishment projects are not going to be hindered at all," County Commissioner Ken Welch said, "then what is the opposition to this decision?"

The opposition goes beyond the tourist council's attempts to balance its budget with money the beaches consider sacred. Beach officials have long questioned how the tourist council spends money. Just last year, they got their own representative on the council -- but the state Legislature had to pass a bill to make that happen.

When the tourist council first talked of turning to the beach renourishment money, the beaches chamber unleashed a myriad of questions about other portions of the bureau's budget. Between the lines of the 66 questions was the not-so-subtle suggestion that the county's tourism arm needed to take a closer look at how it spends tourism tax money.

The questions touched on multiple topics, from how the convention and visitors bureau tracks whether its film commission is actually bringing economic benefit to the county, to where the bureau sends potential visitors who call looking for places to stay and other tourist information.

It took six weeks for the bureau to answer all the questions, and the beaches chamber didn't receive some of the answers until last week, the same day they met with the tourist council to discuss the troubles between the groups.

"You wanted to get our attention," said Todd who, in addition to being a county commissioner, also chairs the tourist council. "You got it."

But Stambaugh said the beaches chamber wasn't just trying to prove a point, but also trying to ask some important questions about the convention and visitors bureau budget.

"It was an education process, too," Stambaugh said. "It wasn't just to get attention."

County Administrator Steve Spratt, who has called the loan from the beach renourishment fund a "non-issue" because he insists it will not affect any projects, pointed out that Pinellas County's competitors in the tourism industry would probably be pleased to know of the infighting."

"Firing questions and criticizing the answers without having a face-to-face exchange is not the way to do it," Spratt said. "It's adversarial."

After the meeting, which also drew five of the county commissioners who will decide Tuesday whether to dip into the beach renourishment money, beaches chamber president-elect Doreen Moore said she thought the county focused too much on healing the relationships between the groups and didn't give enough credence to the questions the chamber asked.

Those questions deserve honest answers at a time when the convention and visitors bureau is facing a budget deficit, Moore said. "There's a bit of a sleight of hand on how the questions were answered," she said.

Tim Bogott, president and chief executive of TradeWinds Island Resorts in St. Pete Beach and a member of the tourist council, hopes the groups can find common ground, especially given the condition of the tourism market.

"The tide is out right now. The tide absolutely comes back in," Bogott said. "And when the tide comes back in, I hope we're still all friends and neighbors."

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