Saturday, January 20, 2018
Business

Bowen: Pasco's new tourism boss seeks to change county outlook

Adam Thomas is an experienced traveler.

His first career lasted 11 years and took him from Boise, Idaho, to Las Vegas, Nev.; Long Beach, Calif.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Mexico; Venezuela; the Dominican Republic, and a dozen other work locations. That is the itinerary for a baseball player whose professional employment was spent on pitching mounds in the minor leagues, foreign countries and independent leagues.

His new job is to entice travelers to pack a suitcase and head to Pasco County.

Thomas, 38, is the recently hired director of Visit Pasco, the county's tourism office, which is seeking to upgrade its destination marketing efforts. He accepted the $82,000-a-year job after leading Citrus County's tourism efforts for the prior four years.

His initial day working for Pasco County coincided with Hurricane Irma's arrival. Nine days later, his first scheduled meeting of the Tourist Development Council failed to draw a quorum, and, while standing in the Pasco County Historic Courthouse, he learned that one of its members had resigned earlier that morning.

Teamwork and dedication appeared in short supply at that moment.

But Thomas looked at it as an opportunity. It is an opportunity for better engagement and to work with people more committed to the cause.

"Opportunity'' is a big part of his vocabulary.

Pasco County's tourism draws?

"There's a lot of opportunities,'' he said.

You can't disagree with his thinking. The county has committed to a $5 million upgrade of its coastal boat ramps. The private Florida Hospital Center Ice is going gangbusters. A regional outlet mall opened less than two years ago. Bicycle and pedestrian paths are sprouting. SunWest Park finally has more water amenities available. There are historic downtown districts. You can go zip-lining off St. Joe Road or be pampered at Saddlebrook Resort. Lots of nudists like it here as well.

We didn't even mention sports tourism.

"Another great opportunity.''

Indeed, the county just doubled its tourist tax to 4 percent to finance its share of a $44 million sports/hotel complex with nearly 100,000 square feet of indoor space for competitions, plus outdoor fields and a privately financed hotel within the Wiregrass Ranch development in Wesley Chapel.

Then there is the hotel building boom. A new hotel just opened at the Suncoast Parkway, and another is scheduled to open next year at nearby Bexley Ranch. Two more are under construction near the ice complex in Wesley Chapel. Another hotel builder already has purchased land near the indoor sports facility at Wiregrass, and two other developers have filed preliminary plans with Pasco County to build hotels — one in Land O'Lakes and another in Hudson.

More rooms mean more tourists. And Thomas said Pasco is well positioned both geographically and with its offerings to be a serious competitor for tourist spending.

"You have a metropolitan lifestyle, but you also have the eco-tourism and leisure lifestyle. You get the best of both worlds,'' he said in an interview after the scuttled TDC meeting.

"It's a very diverse destination that I feel can be positioned correctly and can compete highly in today's tourism (market).''

The correct positioning also will bring scrutiny over how tourism dollars are allocated. Remember, this is a county that at one time had an extended brouhaha over whether to use tourist tax dollars to buy bleachers for a rodeo that no longer exists. More recently, it committed to a generous contract for a lacrosse tournament before realizing Tampa and Hillsborough County were the prime beneficiaries of the hotel nights generated by the event.

Historically, the county has favored mom-and-pop festivals and minor sporting events. Commissioners have even overruled Tourist Development Council recommendations to wean some of the events from public subsidies. It is reflective of the county's small-town culture — and of individual commissioners' parochial concerns — even though Pasco is now home to a half-million people and commissioners are elected countywide.

The buzz words now will be "return on investment.''

"We have to look at the money we're spending and say, 'Is this the best opportunity for us to gain the greatest return?' " said Thomas. "Because the only way we're going to get a return on investment ... is to get people to stay in hotels. So if we're spending on a festival that isn't generating tourism, we have to take a step back and say, 'Is that our mandate? Is that our business model?' "

It will require a change in mind-set, Thomas acknowledged.

In that respect, Thomas is on a familiar journey.

When it comes to tourism, he is tasked with getting Pasco County out of the minor leagues.

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