County favors stadium repairs over selling Sarasota

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Leaders from the region’s hotel, tourism and real estate industries were not happy with the outcome in the Sarasota County Commission Chambers last week.

Tourism industry has suffered from red tide.

The commission approved in a unanimous vote to cut the percentage of funding used to promote Sarasota and draw visitors in order to pay for millions of dollars in repairs to Ed Smith Stadium.

The money will come from the 5 percent Tourist Development Tax that is collected as a bed tax on every hotel room rented to a visitor. The County allocates the money to various tourism-related concerns including beach maintenance, promotion and marketing and increasingly to repairs and maintenance to tourism-related facilities.

The reduction will take place in the 2020 and 2022 fiscal years and the shift in revenue is necessary according to the commission because of terms of its lease agreement with the Baltimore Orioles to pay for any infrastructure cost overruns in Ed Smith Stadium.

The commission expressed concern about breaching contractural obligations for the repairs and County Staff said shifting promotional funds would be the “most practical” way to pay for them. The unfunded repairs come to more than $13 million but those opposed to the shift decried the spending of promotional monies for maintenance as a poor precedent and especially concerning following the worst occupancy rates in years because of the red tide algae that has eroded that business sector.

The funding formulas and budgeting by the County is based on projections and industry leaders in attendance said the numbers will likely be lower because of a lingering effect and that other counties are spending far more proportionally to market their regions and Sarasota County is simply undermining the very basis that collects the funds.

Most of the public who spoke at the meeting last week described the tremendous negative national publicity in the wake of the red tide that started last August and has returned in recent days.

A report last summer determined that about $16.5 million in repairs would be needed to Ed Smith Stadium over the next 10 years and that in the 2020 fiscal year, almost $1 million in additional funds would be needed to help pay for the repairs and more than $800,000 in fiscal year 2022. Simply put, the County is increasing the proportion of Tourist Development Tax Revenue to pay for the Stadium during those years and decreasing the amount allocated to promote Sarasota to potential visitors. The County contracts the entity ‘Visit Sarasota’ to implement its promotional spending.

Commission Chair Nancy Detert suggested that hoteliers had perhaps “overbuilt the area” and said, “We’re top-loaded with hotels.”

The public who were opposed to the County’s plan to shift the funds implored them to find alternative funding for the stadium repairs. Some suggested using the General Fund or raising ticket prices at the Ed Smith Stadium by one or two dollars. These suggestions did not prevail when the commission voted.

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