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Opinion
Sarasota Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020 5 months ago

The pressure is on, Mote

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With the Sarasota County Commission agreeing to front $20 million to Mote Marine for its aquarium from bed taxes, the bigger challenge is yet to come: proving its vision is real.
by: Matt Walsh Editor & CEO

Ah, that wonderful “tourist development tax” — aka the “bed tax.”

It’s the tax machine that just keeps on giving, spitting out millions of dollars each year that are used to subsidize all kinds of money-losing ventures that we all are to believe inure to our benefit and the place we live.

It’s one of our lawmakers’ greatest inventions: Don’t tax the local citizens. Tax our guests and visitors — the tourists — for sleeping in our hotel beds (and condos)! Voila! Free money!

And thanks to those wise lawmakers we send to Tallahassee, they have been generous enough to let Florida’s counties and municipalities use those “bed tax” dollars for ventures intended to keep visitors coming:

  • Convention centers;
  • Sports stadiums, arenas and coliseums;
  • Aquariums, museums, zoos;
  • Fishing piers, nature centers;
  • Baseball spring training facilities;
  • The arts;
  • Maintaining beaches; and
  • To advertise what we have to keep the machine going.

It’s ingenious.

All over Florida, top-flight baseball stadiums are used for MLB spring training 30 days a year. Orlando has its gleaming, $500 million Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center, and Miami has its stunning $472 million Adrienne Arsht Performing Arts Center — both largely funded with bed tax cash.

Locally, if not for the bed tax, we likely wouldn’t have Ed Smith Stadium for the Baltimore Orioles, CoolToday Park for the Atlanta Braves or all of those national rowing championship competitions at Nathan Benderson Park.

To be sure, anyone can take issue with some of the ways that money is “invested.” For one, it’s always a bit galling to think about tax dollars flowing to the benefit of MLB teams — even if many of those dollars come from the tourists who support them.

And you can argue throughout Florida our cities and counties would be less desirable without these venues. Sarasota would be less attractive with a less vibrant performing-arts scene.

But here’s the sticky, difficult part of the bed tax: How should Sarasota County’s $24 million a year in bed taxes be allocated? To a great extent, bed tax collections are a money pot from which all of its recipients want more.

That brings us to Mote Marine Laboratory. Last week, Sarasota County commissioners agreed to add Mote as a beneficiary of the bed tax. Mote asked for $20 million up front — an unencumbered gift — to be able to construct its $130 million aquarium, slated to be built next to Benderson Park.

Commissioners agreed. They agreed to a $20 million, 30-year bond issue for Mote, secured and to be repaid with 5% of the county’s bed tax each year.

To accommodate that, commissioners appear headed toward taking that 5% out of the annual allocation for advertising and promotion.

This is a big deal. And it’s a gamble.

No one knows whether Mote’s projections for its aquarium will come to fruition. Aquariums are not unique. They are all over the U.S., and many struggle financially.

What’s more, even though $1.2 million a year out of the $24 million in annual bed tax collections is, to an extent, de minimis, Mote is now on the list of the county’s bed-tax beneficiaries. Who knows whether its representatives will come back in future years asking for more.

So the pressure is on Mote CEO Michael Crosby and the Mote board and staff to make the aquarium a business and financial success.

And that will take more than $130 million structure. It will take the savvy and know-how required to compete in Florida’s highly competitive attractions industry.

Heretofore, Mote has been both a research organization and tourism attraction — the latter less so than the former. But with the addition of the new aquarium, Mote Marine’s leadership will be charged with operating and managing two organizations that are connected to the seas but with different purposes.

Crosby and the Mote board know this. And presumably, they are preparing for the big challenges ahead.

The vision is admirable: to make Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium even more of a world leader in marine science and research, another pride of Sarasota. But it also would be gratifying to see the aquarium become financially self-sustaining, to the point even of taking over the debt on the bonds.

That would prove to skeptics Mote’s  vision was real and that it’s not just another not-for-profit seeking a handout from the county’s bed-tax money pot.

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