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Exclusive Pasco sports complex beyond county's means

Pasco commissioners are again being asked to define their tourism mission two decades after the county began collecting a tax on overnight accommodations.

Commissioners must decide if they want to define tourists as overnight visitors, day-trippers or just the locals seeking some fun. Likewise, commissioners must determine whether their marketing efforts should focus on young adults on wake boards or families traveling for junior's baseball or soccer games.

Or, they could pick the status quo. It's been done before, despite the best intentions of trying to turn tourist tax money into a tourist draw.

The choices loom because commissioners on Nov. 30 will consider the latest private-sector proposals to spend public money on a tourist attraction. The county's bricks and mortar account has accumulated $11 million since 1991, and a pair of competing proposals offers significantly different costs and targeted beneficiaries.

A suggested wakeboard attraction to be developed in conjunction with a new county park at the proposed SunWest Harbourtowne resort in northwest Pasco would bring a modestly priced recreation outlet to local residents and others making day trips or those staying at the resort. It is not expected to generate the volume of heads in beds as other sports-marketing ventures. That is contrary to the traditional tourist strategy the county had followed for years.

Across the county, the Porter family proposes the Fields at Wiregrass, a $25 million, 13-field sports complex to lure national and regional tournaments for baseball, softball, soccer, lacrosse and other sports. Its focus is nearly exclusively on out-of-town athletes and their families who would stay at area motels while competing, though J.D. Porter said some amenities "will be open to the public at all times.''

The Fields at Wiregrass offers a strong site — room to grow, close proximity to motels and high-end retailing, and easy access to Interstate 75 — that its promoters contend will make it a highly desirable destination.

But, on its surface, the Wiregrass proposal is beyond the county's means unless its construction is completed in phases, borrowed money is used, or the Porters plan to kick in construction dollars. The project's focus on sports tourists could prohibit using other park construction money from impact fees or proceeds from a past bond issue. Those dollars should be earmarked for facilities readily available to local residents.

The Wiregrass business plan indicates it will follow Disney's Wide World of Sports model to extract additional disposable income from participants by charging up to $4 a day for parents to watch their children play in tournaments. Wiregrass also will limit outside food and beverages inside the facility — effectively forcing people to buy snacks and drinks from on-site vendors and concessions.

"Even the Rays let you bring in your own food,'' noted Commissioner Henry Wilson.

Annual maintenance costs are listed at close to $900,000. Therein lies the key for even entertaining these proposals. Pasco County is not in a financial position to absorb new upkeep costs for parks and recreation facilities, nor can it subsidize a tourist attraction. It's why it wants the private sector to assume operations.

So, if the county's constrained parks budget is a primary reason for investigating sports marketing as a tourist attraction, it seems reasonable to have substantial public access to the facility. Under prior, but never realized, plans for a tennis stadium and then softball complex, the facilities were to be earmarked for public use during down times. That is not a large part of the Wiregrass plan.

Walking trails and the like will be available, said Porter, but "as for running a beer (adult softball) league? Wiregrass isn't the place for that.''

The Wiregrass proposal identifies its competitors as the Disney complex outside Orlando and Cocoa Expo Sports Center on Florida's east coast and to a lesser extent, the regional soccer complexes in northwest Hillsborough and at Lakewood Ranch in Manatee. It does not account for a similar plan being readied in Hernando County. There, commissioners are about to seek private-sector partners to expand the Anderson Snow Sports Complex to add a sports village of additional fields and maybe a gymnasium. The plan also calls for a motel, restaurant and retailing on approximately 45 acres of public land just north of the Pasco-Hernando county line.

Porter is complimentary of the other existing facilities but does not believe they will deter Pasco from being a player in what he called an underserved market. He envisions the Fields at Wiregrass to be a destination stop for athletics, a catalyst for colocating other economic development opportunities, and an effective way to turn the banked tourist development money into a dividend-paying draw for the county.

His sales job begins Nov. 30.

Exclusive Pasco sports complex beyond county's means 11/19/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 19, 2011 10:56am]
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