Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman's plan to build a $40-million amateur sports park went down in flames last year for all the obvious reasons. It was costly, risky and of dubious value to the taxpayers who would actually fund it. But now a stripped-down version has surfaced in the county's long-range parks plan. The other commissioners, unanimous against Norman then, should look at the latest proposal and ask: What has changed?
What has changed is the economic climate. The tournament park proposal makes less sense now than it did last year. The continuing downturn in housing and the resulting cuts in public services will force the county, like other governments, to reorder its priorities. Even the rosiest projections for ill-fated Championship Park envisioned massive outlays in public and private investment, for everything from roads and drainage to hotels and restaurants. The county not only lacks the money for capital improvements; it faces a hard enough time in the years ahead sustaining the public works projects from the last real-estate boom.
What has changed is the tourist market. While Norman insists the venue could generate money to maintain the county's stable of parks, his push comes amid a serious weakening in the tourist economy. Oil costs are at record levels, and 43 percent of AAA Auto Club South members surveyed in March said fuel prices would cause them to change travel plans. Airline fares are up. A report this month showed that the number of visitors to Hillsborough in 2007 dropped 1 percent from the previous year, with a big drop in hotel stays. Nearly 8 percent of the businesses affiliated with Hillsborough's tourism promotion agency have dropped their memberships.
What has changed is the political environment. Even after three years of study — much of it out of public view and inadequately vetted — and $162,000 in consultants' expenses to prime the pump, the county, under Norman's direction, could not generate enthusiasm for Championship Park. Commissioners had no faith in the business plan and saw the park as a misplaced priority. "I'm not finding a lot of support in the community," Commissioner Al Higginbotham said in September.
Norman insists the newest proposal is not his bidding, but that is beside the point. Commissioners last year told the staff to move in a different direction. That was in response to overwhelming public sentiment against rolling the dice on a tourist attraction. The commission needs to fund the park system and forget about gimmicks like privatizing ballfields.