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House bill is latest worry for Clearwater’s $79.7 million Phillies stadium upgrade pitch

CLEARWATER — When Pinellas County Commissioners in January allowed Clearwater to begin negotiating for bed tax dollars, they made clear it was unlikely they would award all $40 million the city requested for its $79.7 million overhaul of the Philadelphia Phillies spring training facilities.

Now city officials are facing another potential roadblock.

A Florida House bill that aims to prohibit the use of state funds and county bed tax dollars for sports stadiums cleared a second committee on Tuesday. Although legislative efforts to end the use of public dollars for sports stadiums have fizzled in the past, anxiety over the new bill was aired by city staff in a private negotiation meeting with county staff Tuesday.

“Our conversation (Tuesday) was to make sure everybody understood what kind of timeline that we’re on,” City Manager Bill Horne said. “We’re kind of at the mercy now for what happens in the Legislature.”

HB 791, backed by Rep. Bryan Avila, R-Miami Springs, proposes repealing the state program that gives money to help retain spring training programs in the state. The program was created in 2001 as Florida was losing spring training teams to Arizona and has given 16 grants to date, according to data from the Florida Sports Foundation. Dunedin was awarded $13.7 million from the program last year for its $81 million renovation of its stadium and training facilities for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Avila’s bill would also prohibit counties from using tourist development tax dollars on stadiums, which could kill Clearwater’s application for $40 million in Pinellas County bed tax dollars, a six percent tax collected on hotel and motel stays, said Brian Lowack, Pinellas County’s Intergovernmental liaison.

“As currently written, it does appear (the bill) would severely limit or completely preclude the use of tourist development revenue on sport franchise facilities,” Lowack said.

Avila’s bill does not have a senate companion. But a separate Senate bill filed by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, seeks to repeal a sales-tax pool program that was created in 2014 to support professional sports stadiums but has never been used.

Avila’s measure proposes ending state funding and county bed taxes for stadiums after July 1. If passed, that would mean Clearwater would need to submit its application for the $13.7 million state grant by April 1, an impossible deadline, Horne confirmed.

The city does not yet have a final licensing agreement with the Phillies, a completed economic impact study or a funding outline, all requirements of the state grant.

Before the County Commission can even decide how much, if any, funding it will give the Phillies project, the application must go through review with the Tourist Development Council, which oversees the bed tax program.

When negotiations began in January, city officials were told they’d have to deliver an economic impact study of the facility; a detailed project description; a budget and timeline; funding plan; marketing plan; and a licensing agreement between the city and the Phillies.

None of those have been submitted to the county.

Horne said the economic impact study is being completed with data from the 2019 spring training season, which ends for the Phillies on March 25. Engineering plans that will help specify construction costs are nearly completed.

Before Dunedin applied for its $13.7 million state grant in December of 2017, the Pinellas County Commission provided a letter of intent stating it would fund up to $41.7 million in bed taxes. Dunedin received its state grant in February 2018 and secured the county funds in April.

But negotiations have been less smooth for Clearwater. In January, county commissioners raised concerns about the need for a $79.7 million Spectrum Field overhaul when it was built just 15 years ago for $34 million.

According to the proposal, renovations to Spectrum Field include the club level, left field concourse and restrooms, office space, and fitness and dining areas. The Carpenter training complex, opened in 1967, would receive upgrades to the clubhouse, office space, practice fields and more.

Along with the $40 million in county bed taxes and $13.7 million state grant, the city proposes using $16 million of the city’s Penny for Pinellas tax revenue, and $10 million plus cost overruns from the Phillies.

Parks and Recreation Director Kevin Dunbar has said the renovations are necessary to modernize the facility for players and the public for a facility used nearly year round by the Phillies, the Clearwater Threshers and others.

During Wednesday’s Tourist Development Council meeting, Mayor George Cretekos implored county officials to not discount the city’s $40 million request before all of the details of the application are in.

“As the largest contributor of bed tax dollars and as a city that has invested itself in its infrastructure to make it the No. 1 beach in America, it disturbs me that the county seems to be dismissing a proposal without even review,” Cretekos said.

But Commissioner Karen Seel, also a Tourist Development Council board member, reminded Cretekos of the unambiguous stand commissioners took in January when they allowed the Phillies application to proceed.

“You’re more than welcome to continue to make the submittal for $40 million, but I heard loud and clear from the rest of my commissioners that we probably will not fund to that level,” Seel said. “We want to fund something, but we may not be at that level.”

Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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