During a special meeting last week the Board of County Commissioners approved a plan to capture bed tax revenue to fund improvements and expansion of Port St. Joe’s 10th Street Ballparks.

 

 

During a special meeting last week the Board of County Commissioners approved a plan to capture bed tax revenue to fund improvements and expansion of Port St. Joe’s 10th Street Ballparks, also known as Benny Roberts Sports Park.

During a special meeting the following day, the Gulf County Tourist Development Council voiced concerns about the proposal with full understanding that all the TDC advisory board can do is “advise.”

County commissioners have actively discussed for more than a month using a fifth penny in bed tax, implemented roughly 30 months ago, as baseline funding for improvements to the centrally-located ballfields in Port St. Joe.

A tentative plan was mapped out during a joint workshop last month, and county and city have unanimously voted to move forward along the broad strokes of that plan.

The most significant pot of funds identified to date is $1 million from the fifth bed tax penny, $300,000, roughly, of which is currently in the bank and the remainder to be set aside over through the current course of the penny’s term, which ends in 2019.

That was a bone of the tension between the boards last week.

As county attorney Jeremy Novak framed the issue during the TDC’s meeting, from the BOCC’s perspective, commissioners are picking up a conversation that began before the fifth penny was even implemented.

At that time, the vision was the creation of a sports park on approximately 60 acres near Sacred Heart Hospital on the Gulf donated to the city for recreation by the St. Joe Company.

“What is the plan? What is the plan for that fifth penny?” Novak said.

Commissioner Sandy Quinn, more than a month ago, noted the project was abandoned, but the focus, and fifth-penny funding, should turn to improvements, including expansion, of the 10th Street sports complex.

“We need to work together to get this thing to come to pass for the kids in the community and the visitors,” Quinn said.

The TDC was charged with the planning when the ordinance was put in place, but executive director Jennifer Adams noted that events interfered in the form of the near-cancellation, and then shortening, of the 2016 bay scallop season.

The agency has had a sub-committee on the issue for two years.

Quinn has been appointed to lead a planning committee by the BOCC.

And TDC members unanimously backed the concept of the park, and in some cases the pressing need for the park, but the grist for the mill was the source of that $1 million.

For commissioners, they cut the one area large enough to cut in the TDC budget, the marketing contract with no luggage, which would save more than $200,000.

The TDC marketing budget for the next fiscal year would be a tenth of that and function entirely in-house.

The arguments heard last week echoed to a degree those heard in Tallahassee the past several months as lawmakers debated Visit Florida and tourism marketing.

For commissioners, the contract with no luggage, no matter how effective, was too much money.

Commission chair Ward McDaniel called it “out of line” and Commissioner Phil McCroan has repeatedly cited the amount spent by the TDC on administration and marketing during debates over the project.

As was noted repeatedly throughout the two special meetings, however, the TDC advisory board and the BOCC, as final say, had both signed and approved all TDC budget items and expenditures.

But given the BOCC charge that no one be laid off locally, staff and, in turn, commissioners saw no other place to cut the TDC budget and bring in the needed funds.

However, from the viewpoint of the TDC advisory board, the no luggage contract was something that worked, with David Warriner, president of the board, noting that it had brought in a 4:1 return on investment, four dollars in revenue for every dollar spent, and as a result TDC revenue had tripled in recent years.

That the BOCC would make the decision without consulting the TDC at all, Warriner said, caused concern.

At the least, he said, offer the TDC an opportunity to craft a lesser contract with no luggage.

“It seems to me, to borrow a bad cliché, that you are throwing the baby out with the bath water,” Warriner said.

Ending the contract with the no luggage would also come at a precarious time, TDC board members argued.

The message that 2017 season will include a scallop season, one longer than 2016, must get out as August bookings lag.

And a fall campaign was in the pipeline aimed at aiding scallop season and continuing the growth, which is triple, in off-month “prime season” over the past four years.

In addition, board members expressed skepticism about the plan to replace no luggage with two new in-house hires and, even if the hires could be made, whether they would not be just as expensive.

“(You are) replacing a known result-maker for something we are hoping will work,” said TDC board member Tony Whitfield.

And, a drop in marketing is likely to lead to a drop in revenue for tourist-centric businesses which could mean less employment and less taxes to government, Warriner said, adding that a TDC is all about marketing and promotion.

But, whatever concerns expressed by the TDC made little headway.

McDaniel at one point said, “This board should be jumping on board.”

And, county commissioners remained steadfast in moving forward on the park project.

“Whether the TDC likes it or not, by the vote of this board and the city fathers we are going to do this,” McDaniel said.

Adams and Warriner rallied the troops during the TDC meeting.

“We’ve had a good run and I hope it continues,” Warriner said. “We will use our experience and knowledge and what we are faced with and come up with a good plan.”

Adams said, “We are going to do our best to make this work.”

The park will almost certainly be completed in stages and much will depend on leveraging other funds and successfully applying for state parks and recreation grant funding.

But the vision, and almost certainly the eventual price tag, has grown from the potential of a complex that would span from 20th Street to Eighth Street.