Pasco County's tourist tax increase would buy more to attract tourists

For several years during the 1990s, Pasco government welcomed motorists to the county by proclaiming it home to Jim Courier, "World Tennis Champion.''

Timing being everything, the signs — typically metal roadside placards featuring white lettering on a green background — were erected right around the time Courier began descending the list of the world's top-ranked tennis players.

A few years later, a now-retired county commissioner wanted to expand the sports-themed welcome signs to proclaim the county home to former Major League pitcher Jim "Mudcat'' Grant and professional football player Darren Hambrick, both of Lacoochee. The suggestion came just after the Dallas Cowboys drafted Hambrick in 1998.

Yes, this is the same Hambrick just accused of sexual assault, false imprisonment and domestic battery on his live-in girlfriend.

Though other commissioners actually agreed with the sign idea 11 years ago, the staff never executed the plan. Good thing. Character should count for something when showing pride in the native sons' accomplishments.

We mention this as a roundabout way of noting Pasco County could again be using sports to greet people coming into the county. This time, however, it is not intended to tout the careers of successful pro athletes. One of the spending suggestions for the proceeds from a proposed tourist tax increase is to allocate $100,000 for what is known as tourism enhancements.

One of those enhancements would be directional signs at Pasco's borders and within the county to direct visitors to sports fields, bicycle trails, hiking paths and other amenities upon which the county wants to capitalize as tourism draws. Think of the eye-pleasing signs in downtown New Port Richey that point you toward the library, Sims Park and City Hall and you get the idea.

Signs, however, are just a part of the enhancements. The money also can be used for such things as fishing piers at existing parks. That's sure to please the locals who complain the tourist tax money should be used for something benefiting Pasco residents.

All this is dependent upon commissioners agreeing, by a four-fifths vote, to increase the tourist tax by a penny on the dollar. Commission approval, however, is a foregone conclusion, considering they already approved a resolution of support by a 4-1 vote.

Increasing the tax from 2 to 3 percent on all overnight accommodations is expected to generate at least $370,000 annually, the proposed use for which is to promote Pasco as a destination for sports tourism. (Current tourist tax proceeds, however, are at a five-year low. For the first quarter of the year, the county collected $232,000, a 21 percent decline from the same period in 2008. The recession and hoteliers discounting the price of their rooms contributed to the drop.)

Pasco has 2,574 motel rooms on 33 properties, with more on the way. The higher tax will not put them at a competitive disadvantage. A 3 percent rate matches the charge in Hernando and Citrus counties, and is less than the 5 percent tourist tax charged in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Polk counties.

The big-ticket tourist item is expected to be a multipurpose sports complex. The county has $7.9 million now unencumbered because of the demise of a planned tennis stadium near Saddlebrook Resort. The new venue could attract amateur soccer, baseball and other team sports competitions, but the focus is expected to be baseball/softball.

Some will call new ballfields, fishing piers and signs an extravagance the county can ill-afford. That line of thinking comes from the pressure on the county's general fund that is bringing a proposed 19 percent tax increase to property owners and potential layoffs to county employees.

The logic, however, is flawed. Money for these new tourism projects comes not from homeowners, but from overnight visitors to the county and it can be spent only on things designed to help attract even more tourists. The visitors, in turn, spur additional commerce among local shops, restaurants and motels.

That is key, particularly to struggling small businesses. Those tourist enhancement signs could just as well be designated as dollar signs.

Pasco County's tourist tax increase would buy more to attract tourists 07/22/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 22, 2009 6:03pm]

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