Tourist Development Council hopes to match TIGER grant if won by county

MANATEE -- It's no secret to most that tourism is ever-increasing in Manatee County -- and with more visitors come more vehicles.

The increase in tourism and accompanying traffic concerns were not lost on the Manatee County Tourist Development Council Monday morning.

Anne Wittine from Research Data Services provided the council with recent tourism statistics. Though the results show a bit of "softness" in all Gulf Coast beaches, tourism is still up in Manatee County. The area saw a 0.9 percent increase in total visitors year-over-year with the largest increase coming from European visitation.

The council welcomes growth in Manatee County tourism, but members are concerned about vehicle traffic and how to properly distribute it, particularly on Anna Maria Island. This fall, the council hopes to match a TIGER grant applied for by Manatee County and the island's three cities. The county plans to submit its application for the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant Tuesday.

The U.S. Department of Transportation grant requires at least a 25 percent local match. If awarded, the grant would cover multiple projects on Anna Maria Island, including work on the Coquina North Boat Ramp, a water taxi conceptual, storm water improvements on the southern end of Coquina Beach and a beach trail. Showers, benches and better beach access for disabled patrons are also possibilities.

"We've got to get this grant somehow, some way," said Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We will probably ask the TDC to participate somewhere to the tune of $1 million in this grant."

The TIGER grant would help with the county's goal of alleviating road traffic. Bike paths and additional trails in the county would also promote an active lifestyle, according to Ed Goff, a Manatee County resident and Anna Maria Island property owner who spoke during public comment.

Goff asked for the council's support to add pedestrian- and bike-friendly paths throughout Manatee County. According to Goff, a dedicated position is needed to make the more than 135 miles of possible trails in Manatee County happen.

In December, transportation planning division manager Clarke Davis estimated the position would cost approximately $45,000.

"No action was taken in funding that position," Goff said. "Without a bike path coordinator, it's unlikely it will become a reality."

Manatee County Commissioner and council chair Carol Whitmore noted that before the county had to cut 300 positions during the Great Recession, they had a bike path coordinator. According to county spokesman Nick Azzara, the county has since restored only positions with enterprise funds, or from departments that provide their own revenue such as the utilities department, the building department and the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Traffic has also grown at Sarasota Bradenton International Airport. Mark Stuckey, SRQ's vice president of special projects and development, said year-to-date traffic is up 5 percent, though he expects to see a slight slowdown this summer.

"(It is) due to the loss of a JFK flight on JetBlue," Stuckey said. "It will return in October."

Janelle O'Dea, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095 or follow her on Twitter@jayohday.