When it comes to developing the county-owned SunWest Park in Aripeka, Commissioner Jack Mariano is the proverbial kid in a candy store. Last week, it fell to the rest of the Pasco County Commission to assume the role of responsible adults trying not to blow the budget.
The end result is a park that will include a lakeside beach, a boardwalk on the south side of the property, landscaping and bathrooms. The cost is $3.85 million, above the $3.4 million the county originally had set aside, but less than what Mariano wanted. To make ends meets, the commission agreed to use $450,000 of tourist tax proceeds, plus $118,000 from a separate account to match the unexpectedly high bid costs and to allow for a contingency fund. It was a practical decision that will move the project forward and soon allow local residents access to a waterfront park facing the Gulf of Mexico.
Mariano, however, had a different constituency in mind, as he sought to add $2.5 million worth of amenities including nearly $1 million worth of high-grade sand in an attempt to lure a professional volleyball tournament, plus a water splash pad for kids, more bathrooms and a second boardwalk on the north side of the park. Adding all those perks would have meant exhausting the tourist tax fund, borrowing from other accounts that could take up to 16 years to pay back, and leaving little for contingency.
Mariano's debate tactics — guilt, petulance and sarcasm — failed to persuade any other commissioner to spend money the county didn't have. The questionable pay-off would have been a low-profile sporting event that could benefit motels in nearby Hernando County just as easily as those in Pasco. Commissioner Ted Schrader correctly suggested the private sector should assist in adding those extras if it truly envisioned a professional volleyball facility there.
In that regard, beach volleyball is tardy to the show. A county long-stagnant on committing tourist tax construction dollars is suddenly awash in sports-tourism projects. The county pledged $14 million to a baseball complex at Wiregrass Ranch after getting the land donated by the Porter family and is adding lacrosse fields at the Wesley Chapel District Park to maintain the highly successful national tournament there each December. Additionally, the county has competing proposals for ice hockey facilities near Interstate 75 in central Pasco that may require some county funding to offset transportation fees. There is simply little left for yet another sports-tourism project regardless of its location on the west side of the county.
Mariano's passion is understandable. He considers SunWest Park, and the proposed SunWest Harbourtowne resort next door, to be the keys to jump starting redevelopment and private investment in west Pasco. That may be true, but if the county is putting up nearly $4 million for a waterfront park and plans additional spending the future, it shouldn't require a publicly financed second bathroom or fancy sand to seal private-sector interest.