Forget the chants or the gleeful noise of infield chatter. The ping of an aluminum bat smacking a baseball or softball. The sweaty smiles of the winners and the soon-to-be forgotten forlorn looks of the losers as they all head to the concession stand. Forgetting is easy when the participants are too young to vote.
So, Hernando commissioners should focus on something closer to their hearts — dollars and cents. The county's park system is a valuable commodity that enhances the quality of life for the resident taxpayers and boosts the economy by drawing out-of-town visitors and their wallets.
The proof just came in a recently released report from the Hernando County Tourist Development Bureau. In July, 240 players on 16 teams competed in a Dixie League baseball tournament that produced an estimated $118,000 for the economy, including nearly $32,000 spent on motel stays. The tournament came two months after a commission majority failed to object to a budget-cutting plan to shutter five parks and close significant portions of two others, including the athletic fields at Ernie Weaver Youth Park, where the tournament was held.
The park is a key part of the county's recreational network, where 1,200 kids play baseball and football and participate in cheerleading, among other things. The county should be trying to capitalize on its amenities instead of pondering closing them as an ill-conceived budget-balancing maneuver.
Sports-related tourism is a desirable niche for Hernando's marketing efforts and the Tourism Council is correct to try to attract tournaments and teams. It smartly agreed to provide $25,000 to the county to help with the parks' upkeep. Amateur sports tourism is highly competitive — Pasco County also focuses much of its marketing on the same audience — but the Suncoast Parkway and Interstate 75 provide easy access for travelers and Hernando's location two counties away from Tampa and St. Petersburg increases the likelihood that visiting teams will choose to spend the night, rather than commute, for multi-day tournaments.
But it makes little sense to market the county to sports teams without a long-term commitment from Hernando commissioners to keep the parks in a condition attractive to tournament sponsors.
The Hernando Youth League has said it will pay $25,000 per year for the next five years to keep Ernie Weaver Youth Park open. Commissioners apparently are willing to accept the league's cash even though a majority wouldn't take fees from the families who are members of the league. Political cover — the non-profit league catches grief, not the elected commission if dues are raised — shouldn't guide public policy.
The county is scrounging because of the commission majority's short-sightedness.
The previously approved plan to charge user fees — expected to produce $230,000 annually — was shot down by Commissioners Wayne Dukes, Jim Adkins and John Druzbick earlier this year. Instead, the commission ordered additional staff cuts and dipped into a reserve account to balance the 2011 parks budget. Now, commissioners are just 23 days away from approving the 2012 budget, which remains a work in progress amid a multimillion-dollar deficit in the county's general fund. In July, the county said the private contributions and staff reductions had brightened the picture, but it still needed $122,000 to keep all its parks open.
It makes little sense to continue cutting the amenities that produce income for motels, shops, restaurants and gasoline stations in the private sector and tourism and sales tax revenues to the cash-strapped county. Commissioners need to ensure the public parks remain open.