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Is tourism the right cure for Pasco's economic woes?

As Pasco fine-tunes its economic development strategy over the next few months, county officials face a question: Should tourism play a major role?

To some, the question is blasphemous. Florida and tourism are two peas in a pod. Thanks largely to beaches and Disney, the state is the largest tourist destination in the world. These days, many counties are scrambling to grab a piece of the lucrative tourism associated with youth sports tournaments.

But Pasco has never been considered a tourist hotspot. And low-paying jobs in the tourism industry won't do much to bring up the county's $35,000 average wage, which lags behind both the state and the nation.

"Pasco County does not have a shortage of low-wage service or retail jobs," reads a study by William Fruth, an economic development consultant in Palm City. "The challenge before the county is to create high-wage jobs. Increasing the number of low-wage tourism jobs will actually pull down the Pasco County economy even more."

The comments, part of a larger overview of the county economy, fall under a section titled, "Should Pasco County pursue tourism?"

Eric Keaton, director of Pasco's tourism department, scoffed at the question.

"When tourism is the No. 1 industry in the state of Florida," Keaton said, "to me that would be like Las Vegas saying, 'Should we pursue gambling?' "

The talk comes as the county is deciding how to spend $11.6 million to build a tourist destination. That money has been largely untouched since 1991 when the county began collecting a 2 percent tax on hotel stays. Legally, that money must be spent to help draw tourists to Pasco. It can't build a park intended for local residents or be used for economic development incentives.

And just two weeks ago the vice president of the Florida Sports Foundation touted the economic benefits of sports tourism and suggested Pasco should consider investing in an eight-field softball facility and a three-court gymnasium.

"The county feels obligated to do something on tourism, since we're collecting the tourist development tax," said County Administrator John Gallagher. "It is part of the mix. But it's not something the county has dwelled on like it has dwelled on trying to bring business here."

In the past few years, Pasco closed two major deals to attract financial firms. In 2009, the county inked a $30 million package of state and local incentives for T. Rowe Price. Last year, it agreed to a similar deal worth $15 million to lure a Raymond James Financial expansion.

Meantime, the county has dithered on building a tourist destination. Deals fell through on a tennis stadium in Wesley Chapel and a softball complex in Odessa run by the Sportsplex company. Now the county is in talks on a wakeboard park in Aripeka and a youth sports complex at Wiregrass.

"If we could get this tourist sports destination off the ground, that's going to bring in some jobs," Keaton said. "It is going to put some people to work — to help build it, help maintain it and help market it."

Commissioner Jack Mariano agreed that high-paying corporate jobs should be the county's main goal. But in this economy, he said, any new jobs help bring down unemployment. "I think it's just as important right now for us to focus on doing something quick with the tourism dollars," he said.

Instead of asking whether Pasco should go after tourists, Keaton said the more appropriate question is what kind of tourism to focus on.

As Gallagher put it: "We don't have beautiful beaches. We're not like Clearwater Beach. You've got to kind of develop your own little cottage industry."

So, the county has played up other outdoor recreation opportunities — kayaking and fishing along the coast, hiking and cycling in east Pasco. Much of Pasco's 100,000 acres of conservation land is open to the public, a draw for so-called "eco tourism."

"We can't reinvent the arts thing in Pinellas," said County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand. "We can't reinvent the Bucs or the Rays. So what do you do to invent something?"

A key aim of the tourism tax is to generate hotel room nights. Revenues from the tax develop tourist destinations, which draw more visitors. Those folks stay in Pasco hotels, generating a virtuous cycle.

But Fruth's study turned that goal on its head. In many Florida counties, he says, up to 70 percent of hotel rooms are filled with business travelers. They book rooms throughout the year, instead of just during tourist season. Also, business people tend to travel throughout the week, instead of only on weekends.

"If it is the desire of the county to increase hotel occupancy, then it is appropriate to increase the size of the corporate community, which will create a year-round demand for hotel rooms," Fruth writes.

Hildebrand said tourist draws, as well as a strong business community, provide a boost to hoteliers.

"When Raymond James gets up and operating, you're going to have people that will come here for whatever reason," she said. "They're going to look for a close hotel."

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

Is tourism the right cure for Pasco's economic woes? 03/02/12 [Last modified: Friday, March 2, 2012 6:48pm]
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