WESLEY CHAPEL — The shovels are intended to be tossing dirt, part of the ceremonial ground-breaking at the Wiregrass Ranch Sports Complex.
But they just as easily could be digging for gold.
Next week, dignitaries will gather for the pomp and circumstance of kicking off the start of a $44 million fieldhouse and hotel on the Wiregrass Ranch property. The county-owned sports center, projected to open in late 2019, will join the privately owned Florida Hospital Center Ice as sports tourism destinations in Pasco County.
At Wiregrass Ranch, the 98,000-square-foot gymnasium, roughly the size of a Home Depot store, will be privately operated by RADDSports of Sarasota. It is on land donated to Pasco County by the Porter family. The campus, north and east of the Shops at Wiregrass mall, also will include a public park, amphitheater and event lawn. A proposed second phase will include additional sports fields. It is intended to attract youth athletes, their families and their wallets to Wesley Chapel as Pasco seeks a bigger share of the amateur sports market estimated as a $10-billion-a-year industry.
Hoteliers already have taken notice.
The ice center, which opened in January 2017, and the nearby Tampa Premium Outlets mall, which welcomed customers three months earlier, triggered the start of a boom in Pasco’s hospitality industry.
In the past 18 months, hotels opened next to the ice center and 10 miles away at the Suncoast Parkway, adding a combined 190 rooms to the local inventory. Four more hotels, totaling 455 rooms, are under construction along the State Road 54/56 corridor, and are scheduled to open this year. And, two more groups filed preliminary plans with Pasco County to build hotels — a 64-room Country Inn and Suites at the northeast corner of SR 54 and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and the latest, a proposed 123-room Woodspring Suites on Cypress Ridge Boulevard, across the street from the ice center. If built as proposed, it would put three hotels and 297 rooms within walking distance of the ice complex.
"Based on everything that (Florida Hospital Center Ice) has on line and coming on line, based on what Wiregrass Ranch Sports Complex will have on line, additional hotel space is going to be necessary,’’ said Hope Allen, president and CEO of the North Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce. "Clearly investors do their homework. They will know when a community is oversaturated.’’
Apparently, it isn’t oversaturated yet, because the Wiregrass Ranch Sports Complex includes a 128-room Residence Inn by Marriott. Mainsail Development Group of Tampa expects to start construction on that hotel later this year. The county’s Office of Economic Growth previously estimated off-site hotels would absorb more than 80 percent of the room demand generated by the Wiregrass sports complex.
If all the proposed construction is completed as planned, developers will have built nine hotels and 952 rooms between the Suncoast Parkway and Mansfield Boulevard since the start of 2017. That is a nearly one-third increase in brand-name hotel rooms since the county began studying a sports tourism strategy four years ago.
The dearth of hotel space has been one of the drawbacks in prior sports tourism efforts.
The Dick’s Sporting Goods Tournament of Champions boys lacrosse tournament that had been held in late December in Wesley Chapel became the poster child for the hotel shortage. The organizers received a $90,000 sponsorship contract from the county, but only 25 percent of the nearly 3,700 room nights generated by the 2016 tournament were booked at hotels in Pasco County. The county has since ended its subsidy, and the tournament’s fate is unknown.
The upcoming national roller hockey tournament, TORHS 2Hot4Ice, July 6 -15 at the Florida Hospital Center Ice, serves as an example of the model now used routinely in sports tourism. Visiting teams must follow a stay-to-play policy of booking their overnight accommodations at a partner hotel or pay a significantly higher registration fee for the tournament. It’s still not a guarantee Pasco will capture 100 percent of the hotel stays. A check of the partner hotel list for the roller hockey tournament shows three of the nine hotels are outside Pasco County.
The Florida Sports Foundation’s event calendar reveals the kinds of events that RADDSports will be working to attract to the new multipurpose center at Wiregrass Ranch. Just this summer, there are national and world baton twirling championships in Jacksonville and Kissimmee; boxing qualifiers in Punta Gurda; U.S. Amateur Boys Basketball championships in Gainesville, Alachua and Newberry; and tumbling and trampoline championships, AAU karate and taekwondo tournaments in Fort Lauderdale.
"Amateur sports tourism is one of the fastest growing market segments of the travel industry, and Pasco County’s about to become a major player,’’ said Commissioner Mike Moore. who chairs the Tourist Development Council. "... This facility is going to be boon for small businesses across the county.’’
The ribbon-cutting ceremony, coincidentally, comes simultaneously with the ongoing rewrite of Pasco’s strategic plan for tourism. As part of that effort, the Tourist Development Council, at a May 16 workshop, heard the results of an 89-person survey on the county’s strengths and weaknesses and tossed around ideas on building Pasco’s brand.
"There’s a lot of opportunity for sports on the east side, and that’s something we’re really going to be known for,’’ said Moore, who also highlighted the county’s other attributes like water-based activities in west Pasco, the cities’ downtown charms, and even micro-breweries in Zephyrhills. "There’s so much going on. How do you package it all together?’’
The new fieldhouse and the ice complex help in a big way by introducing first-time visitors to the county. RADDSports has projected its facility could generate 27,000 visitor nights annually.
"Once they come here, you’ve got a 50 to 60 percent chance they’re going to come back. That’s a much easier sell,’’ said Jack Wert, executive director of Collier County’s tourism agency, who is helping the Pasco tourist council draft its plan.
He is speaking from experience. Collier County opened its 212-acre North Collier Regional Park in 2006 with outdoor fields, an indoor gymnasium, water park and other amenities, and it now is a regional destination for soccer, baseball and softball events.
"It was tremendous,’’ said Wert. "That first year, we talked to the coaches and they said, ‘This is the best facility we’ve been to.’ It really put us on the map, and it’s going to be exactly the same for Pasco.’’
Reach C.T. Bowen at [email protected] or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2