Sunday, June 24, 2018
Editorials

Ignoring tourism is the wrong way to go

Ignoring the state's largest industry is not a fruitful way to bolster Pasco's economy. But that was the recommendation from an economic development consultant who said Pasco should quit worrying about luring tourists and the low-wage service jobs that follow. Instead, the county should put more emphasis on industrial recruitment.

The suggestion is based on economics, not politics. It doesn't even account for the commission's frustrating and prolonged effort deciding how to spend Pasco's tourism construction money that has accumulated for more than two decades. The high profile political problems tied to tourism development include commissioners approving a tourism plan then killing a bed tax increase to finance it; parochialism; and the soured romances with private-sector partners over proposed sports venues.

Despite those frequent missteps, it would be a mistake for commissioners to turn their back on bringing visitors to the county and the accompanying business development.

Almost 86 million visitors came to Florida in 2011, a record year for tourism, according to Visit Florida, the state's tourism agency. The industry employs more than 1 million people.

A year ago, Florida tourists spent more than $62.7 billion, generating more than one-fifth of the state's sales tax revenue. Notably, Visit Florida reports $177 in tourism spending and $11 in new sales tax generated by every $1 it spends on marketing.

Rather than abandoning tourism promotion, Pasco County needs a more focused effort from its frequently distracted commissioners.

Just three weeks ago, the Florida Sports Foundation suggested Pasco broaden its tourism appeal by building a large-scale sports venue of either a softball complex or a 40,000 square-foot, three-court gymnasium/recreation center. Sports marketing is favored by the county because of the return on investment. For $90,000 worth of sponsorships, the county played host to 45,000 visitors who booked 12,000 stays in local motels and produced an estimated economic impact of $10 million in 2011.

Commissioners are about to embark on a several-month screening of potential industrial recruiting strategies to try to stem the number of Pasco residents, an estimated 88,000, who leave the county every day for employment elsewhere. As part of that effort, economic consultant William Fruth suggested the commission put its exclusive attention on attracting higher-paying jobs (with business travelers filling hotels during weekdays) while disposing of unspent tourism construction money on local quality-of-life projects.

That idea ignores the county's ongoing negotiations with the Porter family on building new athletic fields at Wiregrass Ranch and the commission's supposed renewed commitment toward sports-related tourism — expressed publicly Tuesday morning by Commissioners Jack Mariano and Pat Mulieri. Their sentiment came as the commission approved a four-year contract to retain the Dick's Sporting Goods Tournament of Champions lacrosse competition in Wesley Chapel which brings 3,700 hotel nights and an estimated $3 million to the local economy.

Those are numbers the county can't disregard. The commission is correct to try to diversity an economy that is too reliant on home construction and low-paying service sector jobs, but brushing aside tourism should not be part of the county's long-range economic strategy.

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