FORT PIERCE – Although the bulk of the St. Lucie County Tourist Development Tax goes to the debt, operation and maintenance of First Data Field in St. Lucie West, the mayors of both Fort Pierce and Port St. Lucie say it’s time to better divvy up the fifth cent of the five-cent tax levied on hotel rooms across the county.
The controversy recently bubbled to the surface after Port St. Lucie Mayor Gregory Oravec added the topic to the agenda of the Jan. 14 City Council meeting and asked for his fellow Council members’ support for his attendance at the County Commission workshop scheduled the following day.
“As you already know, most of the revenue derived from the subject tax is used on the St. Lucie County Sports Complex -- AKA First Data Field -- with the remainder of the revenue flowing to the operation of the Tourism Development Council and capital facilities north of Midway Road and the St. Lucie County Fairgrounds,” he said as he quoted from the 2003 county bed tax ordinance. “This stipulation, which has the effect of excluding organizations in Port St. Lucie, has always struck me as unfair because it seems like the major benefits of tourism and especially the economic impact of a regional facility like the stadium, seem to accrue to the county at large and not a discreet geographic location.”
Vice-Mayor Shannon Martin also expressed a desire to see the ordinance revamped.
“This issue has always struck me as unfair as well,” she said. “This mentality that they go by making up the tax really divides our county -- it doesn’t make us one whole county.”
According to information released by St. Lucie County Director of Tourism & Marketing Charlotte Lombard Bireley, the first and second cents of the tax go to the operation and maintenance of the St. Lucie County's Sports Complex, or First Data Field; the fourth cent goes to pay debt service on bonds used to finance the reconstruction and renovation of the same facility; and 67 percent of the fifth cent is designated for debt service on bonds used to construct and renovate the facility. The remaining 33 percent of that cent is earmarked for capital facilities that promote tourism at the Fairgrounds and projects north of Midway Road. Since 2003, the fifth cent has raised $5.8 million for the debt service and $2.9 million for that designated area, with those funds now divided between nine north-county projects.
Even though most of the Tourist Development Tax goes to the St. Lucie West facility, Councilwoman Jolien Caraballo agreed with her fellow Council members that the Tourist Development Council – of which Mayor Oravec forms a part – should be able to evaluate tourism proposals south of Midway Road as well.
“I think that the county and the TDC should consider all applications and especially those from Port St. Lucie to ensure that all of our citizens of the county have cultural opportunities,” she said. “I think this is an opportunity for the county to show that we are one St. Lucie County.”
The following day County Attorney Dan McIntyre provided the county commissioners a brief historical overview of the Tourist Tax, emphasizing the fact that a former commissioner had instituted a high bar for changing the tax distribution in the future.
“At one point when we were considering a fifth cent, there was a commissioner at that time named Cliff Barnes who said that he would be willing to support it, but he wanted to make sure that some of the money was spent north of Midway Road and on the fairgrounds,” Mr. McIntyre explained Jan. 15. “He also suggested -- because he knew that there would be change down the road -- that if we were ever to change that, it would require a super majority four-fifths vote. So that was included in the ordinance as well.”
Commissioner Chris Dzadovsky, who sits on the TDC Board with Mayor Oravec, then invited the latter to address the Commission on the topic and reminded his fellow commissioners of the reason for the workshop discussion.
“It was brought forward to provide the groups who are out there [the opportunity] to speak to us and understand where we are and a little bit more of the background,” he said. “We’re kind of the middle person or group as to where those funds come and go.”
Mayor Oravec then continued to question the rationale for the exclusion of projects south of Midway Road but also alluded to a potential reason for the same.
“In my service to the TDC and in partnering with you, that struck me as strange that an area of the county was excluded,” he said. “What I gathered from the previous discussion by the Board was it might have something to do with the large investment in the Mets and where the tax goes. But if that’s really the rationale, I kind of what to push back and see if those arguments hold water.”
The mayor went on to explain that the Tourism Development Tax is collected on a countywide basis and is spent by the county.
“So, it’s not like there’s a special benefit that goes to the neighborhood surrounding the stadium,” he continued. “The stadium itself is tax-exempt, and looking at the property records, there doesn’t seem to be a premium on property values.”
Commissioner Dzadovsky then responded, explaining that the founder of St. Lucie West, Thomas J. White Sr., originally built the stadium in 1988 to spur development in the area, which was subsequently annexed by the City of Port St. Lucie in 1985.
“As you can see since the ’80s, Port St. Lucie has been able to grow with the influence of the Mets being in that region,” he said. “You’ll see that billions and billions of dollars have been invested privately for homes and businesses in that region that have benefitted from the location of the stadium.”
Commissioner Dzadovsky also insinuated that had Mr. White built the stadium elsewhere in the county, the conversation and the makeup up of the cities would be different today.
“I submit to you that had the stadium been built in the northern section of the county, that influence and that investment would have come to that area,” he insisted. “So, I think there would have been a different balance in population.”
Fort Pierce Mayor Linda Hudson then threw her hat into the ring, insisting the current bed tax configuration unfairly skewered funds to the south and divided those going to the north.
“So, the revenue comes from the whole county, and it’s about half and half, $2 million from north and $2 million from the south from your figures,” she said, referring to Ms. Bireley’s presentation on the tax proceeds. “But the expenditures that go to the south are over 70 percent, and the expenditures that go to north are 6.5 percent.”
Mayor Hudson then explained that Fort Pierce had a lot of irons in the fire and a potential to exponentially increase its tourism in the near future due to several major developments on the horizon.
“We contribute so much of the revenue, and we don’t as a city get much in return,” she said. “I’d like for you to look at the future and think about Kampgrounds of America coming to Jenkins Road, Gander & Camping World coming to Jenkins Road, [potential] development on the King Plant property, a possible Virgin Train station in Fort Pierce, the Fort Pierce City Marina and the new Causeway Cove Marina in Fort Pierce, and last, but not least, the Port of Fort Pierce. So, we’d like a fairer distribution, and you might ask what we might use it on. We would use it on the Sunrise Theatre, the Lincoln Theatre, the [recently proposed] seaplane base, and park improvements on the beach and on the mainland.”
County Administrator Howard Tipton then informed the Commission that the TDC currently had more than $519,000 in funds waiting to be dispersed and needed direction on whether to seek any more project applications. Commissioner Frannie Hutchinson – the only sitting Board member taking part in the 2003 Tourist Development Tax vote -- then made her position clear on both that request and the current distribution formula.
“We actually sat in this room and discussed a lot of it before it actually went before the Board, and there was input from the community,” she said. “Knowing the research that went behind it and the philosophy, I don’t see that’s changed.”
Commissioner Hutchinson was also loathe to quickly designate the funds mentioned by Mr. Tipton since the Commission had previously broached but not continued a discussion on a new project at the St. Lucie County Fairgrounds.
“I would be leery of even going out and trying to give this away as grants, because the county has yet to come back and we had discussed doing an entertainment center area out by the Fairgrounds,” she explained. “That’s what was recognized back then as being one that’s going to benefit both Port St. Lucie, Fort Pierce and the unincorporated area because of its location.”
Commissioner Dzadovsky then emphasized the county had previously worked collaboratively on both Fort Pierce and Port Lucie tourism projects – the Sunrise Theatre and the Botanical Gardens, respectively – and highlighted other collaborative economic development efforts before making it known there would not be a super majority to change the tax distribution.
“We may disagree on how to get there sometimes, but I think that has given us the opportunity to drive past a lot of other counties in this state because of the cooperation,” he said. “Again, we don’t always get along like family, but we’ve been able to find consensus and move things forward and be successful.”
Mayor Oravec admitted afterward on Jan. 28 that he had left the County Commission workshop “disheartened” but still holding out hope for a future change in the bed tax distribution.
“I remain hopeful that the people of Port St. Lucie, the people who make up 60 percent of St. Lucie County, will ultimately convince our elected County Commissioners to do the right thing -- the fair thing -- to allow qualifying organizations in all of St. Lucie County to make application for the Tourism Development Council’s Capital Grants Program.”