Projects line up for shot at tax dollars

Baseball park, conference center, others vie for money from bed tax.


Published: Saturday, January 16, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 15, 2010 at 11:47 p.m.

Beginning with unrealized visions of a minor league baseball stadium at Santa Fe College in 2005, ideas for projects that could be built through an increase in the county's tourism development tax have emerged and subsided over the past five years.

Facts

Seven projects at a glance

Here is a brief synopsis of each of the seven proposals submitted to the Alachua County Commission to be financed through a 2-cent increase in the county’s tourism development tax:
Alachua County Fairgrounds: A 50,000-square-foot arena/coliseum with 5,000 permanent seats and 2,500 temporary seats at the future fairgrounds on the northwest corner of State Road 24 (Waldo Road) and Northeast 63rd Avenue.
Cade Museum for Innovation and Invention: Named for James Cade, who led the team of University of Florida researchers that invented Gatorade, the $38 million, 55,000-square-foot museum is expected to be under construction in Depot Park in 2012 and open in 2014. The Cade family has donated $10 million, and the nonprofit Cade Museum Foundation’s letter of interest seeks a “significant” but unspecified portion of the approximately $16 million it is expected to take for construction to begin.
Downtown Gainesville Conference Center: An $8.5 million-$11.5 million, 40,000- to 45,000-square-foot conference center that could accommodate meetings of 400-500 people, the proposed location is a surface parking lot in the 200 block of Southwest Second Avenue. Besides tourism tax money, property tax revenue from the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency would fund construction.
High Springs bicycle trails: High Springs proposes a three-mile bicycle trail system along County Road 340 from State Road 27 to Poe Springs Park. Project is designed to promote eco-tourism. Construction costs range from $588,000 to $1.5 million.
Martin Luther King Jr. Sports Complex expansion: A 22,600-square-foot, $5.66 million expansion of the complex, located off Waldo Road and Northeast Eighth Avenue, is intended to bring additional sporting events, such as the Sunshine State Games or State Senior Games, to Gainesville.
Nations Baseball Park: The 16-field complex in Newberry is intended to host youth baseball tournaments and serve as the first regional offshoot of Cooperstown Dreams Park in New York. Total construction costs are estimated at $9.4 million. Complex would be privately built and then purchased for no more than $7 million by Newberry with tourist tax revenue. The park would be publicly owned but privately operated by the Cooperstown Dreams Park staff for a “consultation/management” fee. The park would be built on 40 acres of donated property off U.S. 27 and Northwest 46th Avenue.
Nature Center at Barr Hammock Preserve: A $297,000 project to construct a nature center featuring a deck, classroom and observation tower at the county’s Barr Hammock Preserve, which is approximately five miles west of Interstate 75 on County Road 234.

Back in November, the city of Newberry appeared to have the only game around with its plan to put $7 million from a proposed 2-cent increase in the tax toward the construction of a 16-field youth baseball complex.

But the County Commission threw Newberry a late-inning curve ball and opened up the process for additional proposals in order to see what was out there before potentially dedicating millions of dollars and several years of revenue to one project.

Now, Gainesville has unveiled its vision for a downtown conference center, with estimated construction costs of $8.5 million to $11.5 million, which city officials feel could keep University of Florida conferences now lost to Tallahassee, Tampa and Orlando in town. Gainesville also has resuscitated a proposed expansion of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center to make it a host facility for amateur sports competitions such as the Sunshine Games or the State Senior Games.

"We had put a great deal of effort previously into the MLK Center proposal, and we said 'let's see if they (county commissioners) will reconsider this,' " Gainesville Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan said.

Back in 2006, the MLK expansion plan failed to gain traction with the County Commission, but in recent months some county commissioners have spoken in support of it as a way to revitalize east Gainesville.

Hanrahan said a conference center could, in conjunction with a privately built hotel, "build up downtown as a destination."

South of downtown at Depot Park, the nonprofit foundation behind the Cade Museum for Innovation and Invention seeks money to go toward construction costs.

At the request of the County Commission, county staff also have submitted two proposals - a 50,000-square-foot arena/coliseum at the future fairgrounds and a more modest $300,000 nature center at the county's Barr Hammock Preserve.

High Springs has designs for a three-mile bike trail down County Road 340, from State Road 27 to Poe Springs Park.

Meanwhile, some local hotel general managers have concerns.

Susan Perkins, the general manager of the downtown Gainesville Hampton Inn, e-mailed county commissioners to say several managers from Gainesville were unaware of the proposed increase and wanted more details on the ideas circulating. Perkins said a group of hotel managers planned to send county government a letter outlining their concerns and declined comment until the letter was finalized.

Right now, the tourism development - or bed - tax adds 3 cents on the dollar to hotel and motel room bills and to the rate for all rental stays of six months or less, including campgrounds and condominium leases. Since 2005, the amount of the proposed increase has grown from 1 cent to 2 cents, a change initially made to pay off the debt for Newberry's Nations Baseball Park more quickly should county commissioners choose that project.

On the drawing table since early 2008, the Newberry baseball park would be a regional offshoot of New York's Cooperstown Dreams Park, a mecca for youth baseball tournaments located in the same city as the Baseball Hall of Fame.

While six other projects now offer competition, Newberry City Manager Keith Ashby argued that "they don't even come close to generating the kind of revenue" that the Newberry baseball complex, which would host tournaments for teams from throughout the Southeast, could raise in sales tax and bed tax monies. At recent meetings, some Gainesville and county officials have questioned the fairness of putting bed tax money generated primarily within Gainesville toward a project in Newberry.

"The reality is most of the hotel stays will be in Gainesville," Ashby said.

It would take four votes of the County Commission to increase the tax and change the tourism development plan to allow money to go toward construction projects. On Jan. 26, staff members plan to ask the county commissioners to schedule a public hearing on the tax increase.

Any money raised through the potential increase has to go toward construction of specific facilities, such as conference centers, stadiums and museums, that draw people to a county and put "heads in beds" at area hotels and motels.

Contact Christopher Curry at 374-5088 or chris.curry@gvillesun.com.

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