For those who haven’t been paying attention and never cross Tampa Bay, St. Petersburg has long retired its somnolent “God’s waiting room” label. After fits and starts – including the late, less-than-lamented Bay Plaza effort – to make over its downtown, St. Petersburg found its niche: the arts. Mayor Rick Baker’s acknowledged ambition is for St. Petersburg to become “the cultural center for the state of Florida.”
Hizzoner wasn’t just waxing hyperbolic. St. Pete has a legitimate shot. A critical mass is more than manifest.
A mix of galleries, theaters, antique shops and the eclectic Arts Center complement the Museum of Fine Arts, the Salvador Dali Museum, the rehabbed Mahaffey Theatre, the permanent home for the Florida Orchestra and the planned Dale Chihuly glass gallery and studio. The world class waterfront is its own aesthetic.
The burgeoning arts scene has, in turn, encouraged and enticed an energizing mix of entrepreneurs, developers and visitors. Now it’s only fitting that the arts, a de facto tourist attraction, are being recognized as such. Increases in room nights and restaurant reservations can be quantified when there’s a Monet or Chihuly or Princess Diana exhibition in town.
As a result, Pinellas County’s Tourist Development Council will allot a percentage of the county’s new bed-tax hike – amounting to $750,000 – to specifically help promote museum exhibits. In future fiscal years that amount should increase. Such an earmark, it should be noted, sets a precedent.
It also sets an example of a county targeting a key — albeit non-traditional — asset in its hub market (read: major city) for special promotion. The St. Petersburg museums are bona fide visitor magnets; the Dali, moreover, has ongoing international cachet. And those visitors may also spend time at the beach or Sponge Docks or a mall. It’s in everybody’s vested interest – including a county with two dozen political fiefdoms – to promote any visitor beacon.
Call it the art of cooperation and an ode to common sense. Hopefully, the Hillsborough side of the Bay has taken note – and notes.