WESLEY CHAPEL — Pasco County's plan for a sports-tourism and hotel complex at Wiregrass Ranch is projected to cost $44 million and is accompanied by a proposal to double the hotel bed tax to help finance it.
Next week, Pasco commissioners will be asked to bless the concept of increasing the tourist tax to 4 percent to offset the public's $25 million commitment to the multipurpose gymnasium, public park and amphitheater. The sports facilities and a privately financed 120-room Marriott Hotel would be constructed on land previously donated by the Porter family, northeast of the Shops at Wiregrass mall.
Increasing the tourist tax, which has been at 2 percent since voters authorized it in 1990, requires approval from a fourth-fifths majority of the commission. A formal public hearing and final vote would be held at a later date if the commission endorses the idea April 12.
Doubling the tax rate to 4 percent on overnight accommodations would still leave Pasco's tourist surcharge lower than all of its neighboring counties. Past commissions rejected proposed tourist-tax increases four times over a six-year period, most recently in 2015. However, this is the first time the pitch for a higher tax rate has been linked to a specific tourist-related construction project, rather than for increased promotional work.
Still, its leading critic remains opposed.
"To me, the most important reason for people to come to Florida are beaches and fish. There's nothing in the proposal with that,'' Commissioner Jack Mariano said. "To ask the rest of the county to put up another 2 percent tax I don't think is the right approach.''
Commissioner Mike Wells Jr. also expressed reservations.
"They're going to really have to show me that's the only option available,'' said Wells Jr. who said he favored some of the increased tourist tax revenue being earmarked for boat ramps .
The county and its private partner, RADD Sports of Sarasota, are considering a 98,000-square-foot multipurpose gymnasium capable of holding basketball, volleyball, cheerleading, gymnastics and other indoor sports competitions. The complex would include eight outdoor sports fields, an amphitheater and event lawn, and park amenities including trails, pavilions and a playground.
Commissioners previously earmarked $11 million for the complex in accumulated tourist tax proceeds and some sales tax dollars. The increased tourist tax would bring in an estimated $1.2 million annually and be used to pay down a $15 million loan for the project. Mainsail Development would build the hotel, projected to cost $18.7 million, and would lease the land beneath the hotel site from the county.
RADD Sports would operate the sports complex, and it projects turning over 72 percent of the net operating income to the county — money that could be used to pay off the loan. Financial data provided to commissioners shows RADD Sports expects a $1.3 million net operating income in its first year of operation, and up to $1.6 million in its sixth year. The exact terms of the distribution are still being negotiated.
More than the Mainsail hotel are expected to benefit. The county's Office of Economic Growth estimated off-site hotels would absorb more than 80 percent of the room demand generated by the sports facility. A 92-room Fairfield Inn and Suites already is planned on nearby property in Wiregrass; an 80-room Holiday Inn Express and Suites just opened east of Interstate 75, and a 125-room Hilton Garden Inn is under construction at SR 56 and Silver Maple Parkway.
The county is seeking to capitalize on sports, particularly youth sports, to build its tourism base. Since 2009, the county pursued, but never reached agreement to develop a tennis stadium at the Saddlebrook Resort and three separate baseball or softball complexes.
After a proposed 15-field baseball center on the Wiregrass site fell apart in late 2014, a county-hired consultant, Johnson Consulting of Chicago, recommended the county develop the multipurpose building to attract the indoor sports market. Commissioners selected RADD Sports as its private partner to do just that in fall 2016.