Many beach businesses are on board with Greenlight Pinellas

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A group of elected officials called the BIG C – Barrier Islands Government Council – met today for a series of events talking about and promoting a transit referendum that would increase funding for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority to drastically expand public transportation in the county.

The BIG C heard a presentation from Greenlight Pinellas prior to a roundtable discussion and then later met for lunch with supporters.

Greenlight Pinellas would increase the county’s sales tax from 7 percent to 8 percent and fund increased bus service, bus rapid transit and a single passenger rail line from downtown St. Pete to Clearwater.

The measure is getting the most push back from residents in North County or are overwhelmingly conservative, anti-tax and who aren’t known for hopping on buses. But people living or doing business in beach communities have been largely unheard of. The Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce has endorsed the plan, but not much else has been done on that side of the county either in favor or in opposition to the plan.

Today, business leaders in and around the beaches shared why they support the measure.

“It’s really hard to get a good pool of employees,” Alden Suites executive Mary Ann Renfrow said of the lack of access to public transportation on St. Pete Beach.

A few years ago PSTA launched the Central Avenue Beach Trolley that runs from downtown St. Pete to St. Pete Beach via Central Avenue. Renfrow said that was an improvement, but it’s not enough.

“We have employees who can’t afford a car,” Renfrow added.

Her concerns about employee mobility are echoed by the Beaches Chamber. The group represents businesses all along Pinellas County’s Gulf Coast.

“Right now a lot of businesses say applicants must own a car right on the job applications because they know transportation isn’t reliable,” said Doug Izzo, the government affairs representative for the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber.

Having good employees in the mecca of hotels, restaurants and shops lining the beaches is key to the area’s tourism industry. And access to public transportation is important to them too. Izzo said many tourists who stop into one of the tourist information centers along the beaches often ask if there is a better way to get to and from the airport or other area attractions like Busch Gardens or even downtown St. Pete. When they realize their only decent option is to call a taxi, Izzo says tourists are often both shocked and frustrated.

“A lot of our visitors are from Europe,” Izzo said. “They’re used to [mass transit] and when they come here they expect it.

Business leaders worry that if Pinellas County continues to lag behind other major tourist destinations in mass transit, tourists will opt to vacation somewhere else. Transportation is something visitors pay attention to when choosing a destination.

“They don’t look at what the sales tax is,” said Treasure Island mayor Bob Minning.

But opponents opposed to the plan largely lean on the argument that the sales tax increase would make Pinellas’ rate the highest in the state. If Greenlight Pinellas is approved it would replace the portion of property taxes currently used to fund public transportation. For homeowners and business owners on the beach, that would most likely result in a cost savings for them, not an additional burden. And supporters also point to the fact that the changed funding structure would bring tourists into the loop by forcing them to kick in some tax money during their stays.

Still, the group No Tax for Tracks argues the tax is regressive and falls on the backs of the poor and elderly. There is no disputing that low-income residents who don’t own homes will pay more in taxes. But they will get a whole lot more. Right now many workers along the beach who don’t have access to personal transportation rely on buses or rides from friends to get to work. Many shifts in restaurants, hotels and bars run late and buses aren’t available leaving them with limited options.

And Renfrow, from Alden Suites says it also helps the elderly. In addition to advocating on behalf of beach businesses, she also said the plan would benefit Tierra Verde.

“Right now there is next to no public transportation available out there,” she said.

Tierra Verde is chock full of high end homes with residents who aren’t likely transit users. But there are also a ton of renters and long-term vacationers. And there are older folks. Renfrow points to an elderly woman who lives in Isla Del Sol. That woman has never driven a car.

“Her husband took ill and was in the hospital and she was home with no way to pickup her prescriptions,” Renfrow said.

Asked whether or not an elderly woman who doesn’t know how to drive a car would manage to navigate a transit system on her own, Renfrow said she’d figure it out.

“When you have a well-developed system, it’s easy to navigate,” she said.

Greenlight Pinellas, according to the most recent St. Pete Polls survey conducted, is lagging behind in support. Those hoping it passes are making last ditch efforts to educate transit users and supporters on the Greenlight Plan to try to tip the scales.

“[If it doesn’t pass] our bus system would be cut and it’s not reliable as it is,” said Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber’s Izzo.

Early voting began last week. More than 175,000 people have already voted. Election Day is Tuesday.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.