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    Welcome centers seek funding

    The county's chambers of commerce want $100,000 in county funding to help run welcome centers.

    By MAUREEN BYRNE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published November 6, 2000


    Every day, Pinellas County tourists pop in to local welcome centers.

    Their questions are endless. Where's the beach? Can you recommend a good restaurant? What's the best theme park to visit?

    The 18 welcome centers, operated by the 11 chambers of commerce in Pinellas County, will continue to serve visitors this tourist season just as they have for years. But they want some financial help from the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. The chambers are seeking a contractual partnership with the CVB to help fund their welcome centers.

    On Wednesday, the Tourist Development Council, which oversees CVB operations, will decide whether it will ask the County Commission to give $50,000 to the chambers, said Carol Ketterhagen, executive director of the CVB.

    Another $50,000 has been pledged to the chambers by the county's Department of Economic Development.

    The $100,000 isn't as much money as the chambers had asked for, but it is a step in the right direction, said Rick Sloan, president of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce.

    The amount each chamber would receive would depend on how many hours its welcome centers are open and how many visitors they help.

    Sloan is heading the effort to secure funding from the county.

    "The fact is, the 11 chambers provide the most information to visitors before they get here," he said. "And we are the primary conveyor of information to visitors after they come to Pinellas County."

    Sloan said the chambers deserve some of the county bed tax, which pays for the CVB's $9-million marketing budget. "From day one this partnership should have existed," he said.

    The proposal calls for conformity in the welcome centers and a database of information that would include attractions, special events and businesses.

    It also calls for a 13-member Visitor Center Board that would oversee the partnership. The board also would assess staffing needs, signs and welcome center locations.

    "We want to look down the road to see if we can do a better job," Sloan said.

    Last week, chamber officials asked for $307,500 in the first year: $235,000 to help offset costs at the welcome centers, $65,000 to implement a computer system and $7,500 for training.

    Instead, the county decided to spend six months researching the welcome centers and give $100,000 to the chambers now.

    "There should be a coordinated effort. There should be a partnership," Ketterhagen said. "How it develops has to be determined."

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