The Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement is poised to break ground soon in St. Petersburg and offers great promise in adding to the city's rich and evolving cultural scene. But as a new, unproven private venture, it's not an appropriate candidate for county resort tax dollars. The museum, funded by a wealthy collector, will be built regardless of whether it gets public money and Pinellas County commissioners on Tuesday should reject its request for $6 million.
Last month, the commission approved a handful of other projects for resort tax dollars, which are generated by hotel stays and other short-term rentals. The money can be used to support tourism marketing and capital projects such as museums and stadiums. The largest project commissioners approved was $46 million to help Dunedin upgrade the Toronto Blue Jays spring training baseball complex. They also gave the go-ahead to $27 million for renovations and improvements at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium; $5.5 million for Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater to help upgrade its orchestra shell and build a 250-seat theater; and about $3 million for upgrades at two sports complexes in Clearwater that host soccer, softball and lacrosse tournaments. The projects all represent established brands with proven track records of generating hotel stays in Pinellas County.
The craftsman museum differs in important ways. Tarpon Springs entrepreneur Rudy Ciccarello is building the museum to showcase his collection of furniture, ceramics, metal works, lighting, tiles, fireplaces and artworks in the early 20th century arts and crafts style. The project initially was planned for four stories and 90,000 square feet, with a projected cost of $40 million. Ciccarello later expanded the scope to five stories and 137,000 square feet, with a budget of $90 million. He sought $12 million in resort tax money, and the county's Tourist Development Council comprised of elected officials and industry leaders discussed $6 million.
The tourist council and the County Commission were divided over whether to earmark money for the craftsman museum, as the commission deadlocked at 3-3 last month with Commissioner Charlie Justice absent. Commissioner Ken Welch was the strongest advocate for the museum and persuaded his colleagues to take another look with Justice present. Welch called the museum "the exact kind of investment that we're trying to draw.'' But it has no track record, and it will be built with or without the resort tax money.
Welch also compared this scenario to the Dalí Museum's request for $2.5 million in resort tax money in 2010 to help complete its iconic waterfront home. But the Dalí is a world-renowned institution with a long history in St. Petersburg, and it received less than half of what is sought by the craftsman museum. There's no parallel.
The commission should spend the resort tax money responsibly, and it should save what it can for a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays in case the team chooses to remain in Pinellas. It should reject spending $6 million on construction for the unproven craftsman museum this week, offer to help promote it after it is open, and hold on to the rest of the resort tax money.