Pasco County is resurrecting an idea it has killed twice before: raising the tourist tax on overnight accommodations to boost tourism promotion. The proposal, floated at a commission workshop this week, comes at an opportune time as the county and Blue Marble Strategic of Tampa negotiate to turn 138 acres at Wiregrass Ranch in Wesley Chapel into a 19-field baseball complex.
If a deal can be made, it would be the first significant spending of tourist construction money since voters approved the tax in 1990. The Wiregrass Ranch fields would cement the county's commitment to sports tourism at the same time the Urban Land Institute has recommended Pasco refocus on eco-tourism and to capitalize on the county's natural beauty.
Pasco's earliest tourism promotions featured the "it's only natural'' theme, a strategy that eventually was surpassed by an emphasis on sports marketing that has paid substantial dividends. The county's recent tourism-related spending — adding two fields at the county's district park in Wesley Chapel — is tied directly to its most successful sports-related venture. The Dick's Sporting Goods Tournament of Champions lacrosse competition in Wesley Chapel brings 3,700 hotel nights and an estimated $3 million to the local economy each December. The success of these amateur sports tournaments demonstrated something else to Pasco County. "Sports tourism is recession proof. Families with children playing in these tournaments still travel,'' said Ed Caum, Pasco's tourism director.
So families willing to spend should be willing to spend a few dollars more each night they're out of town.
Each penny-on-the-dollar increase in the tourist tax would produce an additional $400,000 to the county. The proceeds could be used to help maintain the county's existing inventory of athletic fields used for tournament competitions, assist with marketing the $34 million Wiregrass Ranch complex, expand the potential reach of eco-tourism efforts and even replenish the county's modest beaches. Charging out-of-towners to help maintain parks and recreation facilities also provides a political advantage to commissioners seeking to maintain local facilities without stressing the county's general fund or tackling the sticky issue of creating new taxing districts.
The county has charged a 2 percent surcharge on overnight accommodations since 1991. Though some pushback from the hospitality industry can be expected, there is no empirical data to suggest an increase would put local hoteliers at a competitive disadvantage.
Pasco charges the smallest tourist tax in the region. Hernando and Citrus counties assess a 3 percent tax and 17 counties across the state, including Hillsborough, Pinellas, Polk, Manatee and Sarasota, charge a 5 percent bed tax.
Past efforts to increase the tourist tax have died amid parochialism and short-sighted budgeting suggestions. Those shouldn't be repeated. The public debate in 2014 should focus on the broader issue of the economic benefits of luring more visitors to Pasco County.