Visit Sarasota County board upset over potential loss of funding for promotions to cover stadium repairs

Tourism office leaders also voice worries to advisory council about need to submit $750,000 bid in June for World Rowing Championships youth event at Benderson Park

Virginia Haley. File photo

Among its responsibilities, Sarasota County’s Tourist Development Council (TDC) each year reviews the proposed Visit Sarasota County budget and makes a recommendation to the County Commission on whether to approve it.

Typically, Visit Sarasota County (VSC) President Virginia Haley and members of her staff offer details about marketing plans, for example, and special events scheduled for that next fiscal year.

The process generally is routine and noncontroversial.

On May 17, however, County Commissioner Charles Hines — chair of the TDC — announced that the proposed VSC budget for the 2019 fiscal year had been pulled from that day’s agenda. “What I understand,” he said, “[is] it’s still going to go to the County Commission in June.” Staff would try to work with the TDC members to schedule an earlier session than originally planned for them in June, Hines continued, so they still would have an opportunity to review the budget first. “I, at least, don’t think it’s appropriate” for the budget not to have the TDC’s review, he added.

County staff made the decision to pull the budget, Haley explained during the Open to the Public period at the start of the TDC session. “We are concerned with this because we need sufficient time to plan for the 23% increase in new hotel rooms,” she told the council members.

Moreover, she explained, FISA(Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron), the world governing body of the sport of rowing, has given Sarasota County the exclusive right to bid on the 2019 World Rowing Championships for those under the age of 23. That would be held at Nathan Benderson Park in July 2019, Haley said. One item in her proposed FY19 budget is $750,000 for that bid, she added.

The Finish Tower has become the key landmark at Benderson Park. File photo

Manatee County leaders have not yet announced whether they will cover part of that expense, Haley explained. If Sarasota County provides the full bid amount, she said, all of the hotel rooms for the athletes would be booked in Sarasota County.

Haley mentioned to the TDC in November 2017 that FISA had contacted the new president of USRowing, telling him, “‘We’ve got a problem with the 2019 Under 23s World Rowing Championships. Would you please bid on it.’”

As she understood the situation on May 17, Haley continued during the TDC meeting, county staff was trying to find money for repairs to Ed Smith Stadium, where the Baltimore Orioles conduct Spring Training in Sarasota.

(Sarasota County filed a complaint against Gilbane Building Co. of Rhode Island on Nov. 30, 2016, alleging that the firm is responsible for defective flooring at Ed Smith Stadium. The case remains in litigation. An April 13 document in the case file says the county has “provided Gilbane with all four of its experts’ reports, documents related to the repair and replacement of the flooring in the concourse area as well as … correspondence outlining the continued work the County was proceeding with to fix the left field areas.”)

(In response to a Sarasota News Leader inquiry on May 21, county Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester reported, “[T]he flooring work is nearly complete. Roughly 2-3 days of work remains, but the wet weather has postponed things.)

(During the Nov. 16, 2017 meeting of the TDC, Hines explained that the County Commission had agreed to go ahead and replace the defective flooring while the lawsuit wends its way through court. Doreen Buonpastore, a fiscal consultant with the county’s Office of Financial Management, said during that TDC meeting that the contract the County Commission awarded on Sept. 13, 2017 for the flooring work totaled $1,079,243.)

Ed Smith Stadium is the Baltimore Orioles’ Spring Training home in Sarasota. File photo

Her board, Haley pointed out on May 17, “believes these funds must come from [Tourist Development Tax revenue set aside for Spring Training], even if it’s a case of [the money] being borrowed and paid back by that fund.”

Thanks to the work of Visit Sarasota County, Haley added, the county’s “bed tax” revenue will continue to grow, providing more money for expenses associated with Spring Training. She told the TDC members, “There’s no way that we should be, once again, third time in five years, taking tourism promotion funds for non-promotion uses.”

Furthermore, Haley indicated that if Benderson Park wins the World Rowing Championships bid for athletes under the age of 23, that would make it very likely the park also would get to host the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2020.

Sufficient funds are in the Tourist Development Tax (TDT) account for promotional efforts, she added, to cover the $750,000 bid.

“There is an urgency, both in the [VSC] marketing plan and in the world rowing [bid],” Haley stressed. Her board needs a decision before the end of June, she told the TDC members.

When county staff proposed allocating a certain portion of TDT revenue to cover the debt service on the bonds for the new Atlanta Braves Spring Training complex underway in the West Villages outside North Port, she said, her board was fully supportive of that. However, members of the tourism industry made it clear that they hoped that would be the last diversion of TDT revenue that they felt should be going to tourism promotions and marketing, Haley pointed out. “We’re starting to eat into the seed corn with any more [diversions].”

The county staff perspective

Jeff Maultsby. File photo

After Haley completed her remarks, Jeff Maultsby, director of the county’s Office of Business and Economic Development, addressed the TDC members. He had prepared remarks from which he would read, he said, but first, “I will say, unscripted, [Haley] and I are working jointly and collaboratively, in a good spirit, in trying to come to some conclusion [on the VSC budget].”

Maultsby then pointed out that county staff signs an agreement with VSC every year, focusing on the tourism agency’s scope of services for the county. “While we agree that Visit Sarasota County efficiently and effectively spends Tourist Development Tax dollars in this role,” he said, “respectfully, Visit Sarasota County has no say in determining the allocation of the county’s [TDT] revenue.”

Maultsby noted, as well, that county staff thus far has not been in any discussions with FISA about the youth event. However, he said, “Sarasota County has not and is not saying, ‘No’ to Visit Sarasota County’s additional budget request [for the rowing bid].”

He explained that county staff has to undertake “due diligence” before agreeing to the financial commitment. He also indicated that staff remains dedicated to helping VSC work to bring events such as the World Rowing Championships for youth under the age of 23 to Benderson Park.

When Sarasota City Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie asked about the timing of the budget discussions, Maultsby replied that staff was looking at scheduling the County Commission’s approval of the VSC budget in July. However, he acknowledged that Haley wanted that to take place in June.

“We think we can get that done,” Maultsby added.

More details sought

Venice Vice Mayor Bob Daniels asked for the specific amounts at the heart of the discussion between VSC and county staff. Maultsby replied that the VSC request for the World Rowing Championships (WRC) bid would be a one-time amount, while the other item under discussion is a recurring allocation of $500,000 for “promotion of new hotel rooms coming on board. … We’re trying to identify money for those requests. We have just not been able to do the due diligence in time for today’s meeting.”

Venice Vice Mayor Bob Daniels. Image courtesy City of Venice

Hines summed it up: “Staff right now needs a little bit more time.”

“We’ve always had no problems at all [with the VSC budget],” Daniels pointed out. “Virginia does a great job.”

“It’s a timing issue,” Hines responded, “and sometimes people can agree to disagree.”

Hines indicated that one big factor leading to the delay has been the need to know whether Manatee County will participate in the WRC bid, as it did with in 2013 with the effort to bring the 2017 World Rowing Championships (WRC) to Benderson Park.

In response to a question from North Port Commissioner Jill Luke, Haley explained that that 2013 bid was $2.3 million, split between the two counties. “This was substantially less” for the 2019 youth event, she added.

Daniels noted that, of all the organizations with which he has been involved over his decades of professional and elected experience, VSC “quantifies everything that they do. … I’m a little hesitant to have people grabbing dollars — that’s too rash a word to use. … This is a five-star organization,” he continued of VSC. “I just don’t want to do anything to train-wreck it.”

“And I think [that is] why this additional time is imperative,” Hines told him.

TDC member Angus Rogers, whose company — Floridays Development— built the Art Ovation Hotel on Palm Avenue in downtown Sarasota, pointed out that accommodations generate the TDT revenue, which is derived from a 5% county tax. “We can’t pilfer Visit Sarasota’s budget such that they can’t make a meaningful impact for all of us,” he said.