CLEARWATER — Visit St. Pete-Clearwater President and CEO David Downing announced some exciting news during the Oct. 17 Tourist Development Council meeting.
Tourist tax collections are on track to hit $60 million this year, a record high. If that happens, it would make Pinellas County’s tourism a billion-dollar industry.
As of August, more than $56.5 million in bed tax, aka tourist development tax, had been collected – a 9.57 percent increase over last year. Only one more month of collections remain this fiscal year, which runs from Oct. 1-Sept. 30.
Last year, just over $3.2 million in bed taxes were collected in September. If the same amount comes in this year, the total would be shy of $60 million by about $275,000.
No data is yet available for September, a month when red tide caused problems out on local beaches. The number of rooms sold by local hoteliers increased by 3.6 percent in August, Downing reported, and the average daily rate was up 2.9 percent. Revenue per available room was up 6 percent.
Year-to-date, rooms sold is up 3.6 percent, average daily rate increased 3.2 percent and revenue per available room is up 3.4 percent. The county’s average daily rate for rooms is No. 4 in the state, Downing said.
One of the biggest draws to Pinellas is its 35 miles of white sand beaches. John Bishop, the county’s coastal management coordinator, provided council members with an update on beach nourishment.
He said 21.4 miles of the county’s beaches are considered critically eroded, and 12 miles of those beaches are nourished on a regular basis. Twelve coastal municipalities have 11 ongoing beach projects.
Bishop reviewed five project areas, including two that receive no federal funding. Those projects are Honeymoon Island and Upham Beach. Both have installation of T-groins designed to help hold the sand in place.
Three additional projects do receive funding from the Army Corps of Engineers and those include Sand Key, Treasure Island and Long Key. Federal funding pays 60 percent of nourishment costs with the state paying 20 percent and the county chipping in another 20 percent. A portion of bed tax money goes to pay the county’s share.
The price tag for the current Sand Key nourishment project is $44.5 million, $7.2 million for the project at Treasure Island and $7 million for the Upham Beach stabilization project. Bishop said the Sand Key project qualified for additional funding to repair damage done by hurricanes Hermine and Irma.
Bishop talked about future projects and said Sand Key would likely receive new sand again in 2023. Treasure Island’s schedule calls for its next project to occur in 2022 and Long Key in 2025. However, there are funding challenges ahead.
Treasure Island is scheduled for reauthorization of funding for its nourishment projects by the federal government. The current agreement has the Corps of Engineers paying about 58 percent of the costs. Due to new cost-share formula, in the future the corps will likely pay closer to 47.8 percent.
Bishop said the current agreement should last through the next three nourishment projects.
Lack of easements from property owners is causing a funding challenge for future nourishment projects. The Army Corps requires that property owners provide easements so they can access private property to be able to place sand up to the seawall, if necessary.
The county still needs 386 out of the 462 easements required. In areas without easements, no federal money will be allocated for nourishment. In addition, lack of easements could reduce the amount of funding for the project as a whole, he said. Without the easements, the county could have to pay up to 75 percent of the cost.
The Corps of Engineers wants easements in place so they can do needed work after storms, such as Hurricane Irma. And they need space to be able to move equipment around as needed, he said.
Bishop said work is ongoing to communicate with property owners about the need for easements and what they mean in terms of property rights. He said two condominiums that had refused to sign had recently relented and provided the needed easements. He said staff was optimistic that more property owners would be agreeable as staff continues to work to get easements signed.
One of the fears had been that the easements would be used to build dunes. A clause was added to the agreements that said they would not be used to build dunes, which helped, he said.
Sea turtle nesting is another challenge. Bishop said unlike other counties, Pinellas is allowed to move sea turtle nests, which allows nourishment projects to be scheduled during nesting season. However, lighting issues are making it a challenge to find suitable locations to move the nests.
The county has stepped up its education efforts, especially for visitors, to let people know how important it is to do things such as closing the blinds on hotel rooms that face the beach at night. He said if nests cannot be successfully relocated, the county might not be allowed to do beach nourishment during nesting season, which would create a problem with scheduling.
Bishop also provided a preliminary report on damage to the beaches due to Hurricane Michael. He said some beaches had fared better than others had, but the complete report is not yet complete. He said it looked as if Sunset Beach might have lost a lot of sand.
“There’s a slope to the water line that wasn’t there before,” he said.
On Sand Key Beach, the sand loss seems to be confined to the seaward edge, but most of the beach is OK, he said. One unknown remains, and that is whether the sand that was pushed onshore can make it back on shore.