Pasco County is poised to finally decide where to locate a planned athletic complex this week, a significant step forward for a county that wants to increase its share of the sports tourism market.
At a real estate closing scheduled for Tuesday, the county is to obtain 138 acres from the Porter family's Wiregrass Ranch property and fill dirt to develop the site. In exchange, the county is providing the Porters nearby county-owned land with limited access. Most importantly, the county is making a good faith effort to turn the Wiregrass land into a sports complex over the next two years.
It's a bargain for the county, and a testament to the negotiating skills of County Administrator John Gallagher, but our enthusiasm is tempered by past failures. The county also owned Wesley Chapel land targeted for a tennis stadium and Trinity property earmarked for a softball complex. Neither of those sports tourism projects materialized after squabbling with private companies selected to operate the publicly-owned facilities.
The county's sport tourism effort is now moving forward on duel fronts. It is expanding its lacrosse facilities as part of a contractual obligation to continue to serve as host to a national lacrosse tournament each December, and it must negotiate an operating agreement for the Wiregrass site with private vendor, Blue Marble Strategic of Tampa.
The county initially pledged $14 million in tourist and other tax money toward the Wiregrass project, but just agreed to spend $2 million of that kitty to add lacrosse fields at the county-owned Wesley Chapel District Park. The spending came after Blue Marble projected needing just $8.5 million in public money to develop the Wiregrass site into a baseball/softball complex.
While the county's negotiations with Blue Marble will be handled on the staff level, it is still imperative for the commission to demonstrate leadership on this issue and not be pulled into the fractious parochialism that undermined past efforts.
For starters, the commission should reconsider its reluctance to raise the tourist tax rate which has stood as a 2 percent surcharge on overnight accommodations since its voter-approved inception in 1990. It is illogical to build large-scale sports facilities and then rely on a bare-bones marketing budget to promote them.
The commission also should focus tourism promotion on its original intent – attracting out-of-town visitors for overnight stays in Pasco County. Commission Chairman Ted Schrader recently advocated spending local tourist money to promote Pasco as the home of rugby event even though local hotels wouldn't benefit because the rugby event would have coincided with the overnight bookings from the lacrosse tournament. The motels that collect Pasco's tourist tax should be the ones benefitting from its spending.
The proposed fields at Wiregrass Ranch have the potential to land Pasco as a prime location for family-oriented tourists traveling for sports competitions. Commissioners then should ensure their tourism promotion efforts are upgraded accordingly.