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Trolley needs financial aid to stay free

HOLMES BEACH — Free trolley service on Anna Maria Island might hit the brakes next year.

During the Tourist Development Council’s budget review Monday, board members debated how to avoid a $1-a-day rider fare Manatee County is proposing to subsidize the trolley’s operating balance of $100,000 a year.

The trolley’s ridership consists of 60 percent residents and 40 percent tourists and has an annual operating budget of $900,000, of which about $800,000 is funded through grants.

The remaining $100,000 a year has been shared with Manatee County paying $50,000, the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau contributing $26,000, and Anna Maria, Bradenton Beach and Holmes Beach splitting the remaining $24,000.

However, Manatee County administrators and commissioners say the county can no longer afford the annual subsidy since it must slash $33.7 million from its 2010 budget.

“As it stands now, unless I can find a millionaire who can give me $100,000 a year, it’s probably going to happen that we are going to have to charge,” said Carol Whitmore, chairwoman of the Tourist Development Council and a Manatee County commissioner. The county is looking at a $1-a-day fare that would give riders unlimited transfers and a $5 fare for a seven-day pass.

In response to the county’s consideration of a fare, the Bradenton Area CVB cut its $26,000 annual allocation for the trolley despite the $1 million it will gain next year from raising the tourism tax from 4 cents to 5 cents, which was implemented this month.

“As you know, we are behind on revenues, the entire state and, of course, the entire country is behind on revenues,” said Larry White, executive director of the Bradenton Area CVB.

Several business owners who sit on the Tourist Development Council board were against implementing a trolley fare.

Manatee County Area Transit started the free trolley service about two years ago to help ease traffic congestion on Anna Maria Island. Since then, however, it has become a marketing tool for island businesses.

“The trolley being free means that it’s free,” said Sean Murphy, owner of the Beach Bistro in Anna Maria. “It’s not that it costs a buck and somebody’s got to pay or get a stamp or something. It’s just you don’t have to do anything, the people can climb on the trolley.”

David Teitelbaum, owner, president and managing director of Tortuga Inn, Tradewinds and SeaSide Resorts, agreed.

“In my opinion, that trolley needs to stay free because it’s part of our marketing program,” Teitelbaum said. “And there are probably some creative ways to do that.”

Ed Chiles, owner of the Beach House, Mar Vista and the Sandbar restaurants, proposed raising money by seeking donors to help foot the bill so the county and cities’ financial obligations could be lowered.

“I don’t think we’ve had the opportunity to say, ‘OK, if we’re not going to have a free trolley and that’s important to us, what about raising the money,’ ” Chiles said. “Because I think the money is here and I think, actually, a lot is probably in this room.”

Chiles pitched the names of some business owners, council board members, as well the Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce and the Manatee County Chamber of Commerce as donors.

Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker stressed that funding the trolley could become a more expensive issue if its state grants are dropped in the future.

“We just have to stay focused on the long run and that this would be imprudent to take this one year at a time,” Hunzeker said. “Because it’s how are we going to keep it viable in the long haul.”

In other news from the Monday’s TDC meeting:

n Manatee collected $498,776 in tourism tax for April, up from the $466,179 generated in April 2008. The occupancy rate for April was 65.4 percent, near the same as last year’s 65.6 percent for the same month. May’s occupancy, however, decreased to 56.4 percent, down from 59.8 percent in May 2008.

n Dwight Currie, associate director of museum programs at the Ringling Museum, talked about plans for the Ringling International Arts Festival that is scheduled for October.

The festival will be Oct. 7-11 and will include more than 200 performances that will be priced from $10 to $30 each.

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