A few months ago, Gulfport Mayor Sam Henderson and I engaged in what you might call a “spirited debate.” The mayor, it seems, had received a few phone calls about a few of my columns. People had questions. People had issues. People had demands. Mayor Sam wanted to let me know I’d left my job half done.
“You don’t talk about how to pay for things,” he told me, with no small measure of frustration in his voice.
Fair enough. I don’t. But, really, is that my job? Shouldn’t city staff work out that sort of thing? I don’t, I freely admit, have all the answers. I don’t know how to fix the problems I discuss in this column. But, well, Mayor H, since you asked, here are my thoughts on Gulfport’s finances:
I am tired of being a poor city. I’m tired of us thinking poor and acting poor and, as a result, being poor. In part, that’s because I don’t believe, necessarily, that we are poor. We have a lot going for us, although yes, we could have more money in the bank. So could everyone. What’s dictating our future is how we think of ourselves, and I’m tired of us thinking like poor people.
When you’re poor, you don’t think past the next paycheck. You can’t. Instead of replacing your air conditioner, you fix it, because that costs less money right now and it’s all you can afford. You go for the cheapest car on the lot instead of the more expensive one in better shape.
But I think anyone who has owned a home or a car knows what happens next: your power bills get higher and higher and you keep plugging money into your air conditioner or car, until you’ve outspent what you would have had you bitten the bullet and just bought the new air handler or more expensive car.
That’s what Gulfport’s been doing, and I cannot think of a worse way to spend our tax money. We’ve piecemealed together our sewers and foregone non-essential repairs (remember when we had beach pavilions in front of O’Maddy’s?) and gone without, all because previous administrations kept us poor. They wanted Gulfport to be affordable for everyone. While that’s commendable, we’re starting to look like the cheapest used car on the lot.
The mayor’s criticism was this: I am ready to build a merry-go-round on the point and turn our beach into a boardwalk with carnival-style games and hot dog stands. I want to see a marina hotel and restaurant. While I applauded Councilwoman Christine Brown’s vision for the marina and wrote a column suggesting we move forward immediately, I didn’t, the mayor said, consider how to pay for it.
That’s not true, exactly. I thought about it a lot; I just didn’t talk about funding in the column. So today, here’s my short answer: find the money. Apply for grants. Use Penny for Pinellas funds. An assessment on our tax bill that ends once it pays for the construction. Get a loan. A one-cent “waterfront improvement” or “cultural enhancement” sales tax. Structure a lease deal with the hotel operator and restaurateur that puts the onus of financing the build on them. In return, give them a slightly sweeter lease deal.
Look, a marina hotel and restaurant, a city-owned boardwalk with lessees running concession (and sunset celebrations on the beach with the vendors renting space from the city)…all these things? They will make money. For us. Directly. As in, they could, conceivably, lower our tax bills. But to make money, we do have to spend money. Money does not simply fall from the sky. We have to take chances and believe that we are the city we tell the world we are, because if that’s true –if we are as great as we tell everyone – why wouldn’t we invest in ourselves to brighten up things? Why not spend to give ourselves a facelift and make our city less utilitarian and more functionally attractive?
So I encourage our city council, as we go into budget season, to think about what kind of car they want Gulfport to be. And don’t be afraid to invest in us.
We are not a Rolls Royce, and I’m not suggesting we spend like we are. But we are not a 1983 Plymouth Reliant with a cracked maroon dashboard, oxidized gray paint, and one donut tire keeping us chugging down the road, either.
I like to think of us as one of the classics, perhaps an old Thunderbird with white leather and a convertible top. That seems appropriate for a seaside town. But we can be any kind of car we want to be.
The only question remaining is, what do we have to do to put you in this car today?