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Leaders decry apathy on tourism

Hoteliers believe having more rooms for tourists will help the county's economy.

By PAUL SWIDER, Times Staff Writer
Published November 4, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG- Leaders of the largest industry in Pinellas County are upset that they cannot reinvest to grow their business and further feed the economy. For the most part, tourist operators blame themselves.

"I don't think our industry has done a good job of putting what we do in somebody's living room," said Tony Satterfield, who is chairman of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce and also manager of the Alden Beach Resort. "We talk about numbers and salaries, but it doesn't mean anything to people."

Satterfield and others are anxious about public apathy to the $6.4-billion annual impact the industry has on the county's economy.

They want to continue to generate 5 to 10 percent of that economy, but fear ignorance about tourism, including among elected officials, will stymie them.

In particular, they worry about municipalities not enabling a new county ordinance that grants added hotel density to spur reinvestment.

But some, especially along the barrier islands, have gone through fights against feared mammoth developments.

Hoteliers say they need the extra density to make reinvestment viable. Without more rooms to fund new or even revamped hotels, economic pressures - rising property taxes, higher insurance rates, a waterfront real estate market that will return - will disable the industry and convert the beaches to sterile condo canyons instead of diversified communities.

"With current densities, it's not financially feasible to build a hotel," said D.T. Minich, the head of the county's Convention and Visitors Bureau, which is starting a public education campaign about tourism's importance. "Some of these hotels have not even had the chance to upgrade in 20 years."

In the past four years, the county lost more than 10 percent of its 40,000 hotel rooms, mostly on the beaches. During the hot condo market, hotel and motel owners - facing increasing expenses - sold to developers' offers. As hotel accommodations dwindled, other tourist businesses started disappearing.

"You go down on the beaches now and you can see shops and restaurants out of business," Minich said. "You see big vacant properties with ugly chain-link fences around them. Everything is dependent on that short-term visitor leaving their money behind."

Minich said some people are starting to get the connection, but others think hoteliers just want big buildings. Satterfield said he's reaching out to the community but getting stiff-armed.

"Increasingly, they won't have a dialogue with us," he said of elected officials on the beaches. "If we can't sit and talk, then you have a tendency for people to write those letters."

Hoteliers are particularly perturbed by a letter from St. Pete Beach Commissioner Linda Chaney, who told the County Commission its density ordinance was ill-founded and hazardous to the community.

Satterfield said the letter contains errors but Chaney hasn't responded to repeated requests to talk about it with the beaches chamber members, including her constituents. Chaney also did not return a reporter's phone calls to discuss the matter.

Chaney's letter says tourist demand is down and that's why rooms are disappearing. Hoteliers say her logic is flawed and unsupported by facts.

Satterfield says hotels can fix the situation, if allowed, or communities will lose business, income and vibrancy. Others see the same problem and hope new density can be the answer.

"We've got four potential projects that could benefit from density," said John Wolbert, a Madeira Beach city commissioner. "We could bring in 500-600 hotel rooms right now."

Madeira Beach will take up the density issue soon in workshops, but Wolbert said he's not sure if the commission will support it, much less the public. He said elected officials up and down the beaches steer away from development issues because of residents' complaints, but that reluctance to face reality will cause problems.

"They say they like it the way it is but it's not going to stay the way it is," he said.

Treasure Island Mayor Mary Maloof agrees, but says residents are more afraid of tourist traffic they can see now than of losing tourism, the impact of which feels remote. Hotels will either redevelop or become condos; returning to a state of beachfront cottages is impossible, unless cities want to buy hotels' properties.

"People want things left as they are, but that's a pipe dream," she said. "It would be pretty shocking to lose a whole industry."

Paul Swider can be reached at or 892-2271.

[Last modified November 3, 2007, 22:11:05]

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