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Pasco commissioners dither over sports complex

After waiting 18 years to spend its tourist tax proceeds, a Pasco commission majority decided another eight weeks didn't matter. At least not to them. But, the signal it sent to the private sector is that Pasco remains part of the bush leagues despite its stated aspirations to develop public-private partnerships and tout the county as a tourist destination via sports marketing.

Tuesday, after a torturous display from Commissioner Jack Mariano that included such irrelevant minutiae as the biodegradability of dog feces on artificial turf, consultants from Sportsplex USA declined to do additional research at Mariano's behest and told the commission it needed to make a decision. It was a polite way of saying they didn't intend to waste their time and energy trying to appease an obstructionist.

Mariano's ulterior motive is to get the sports complex located in Hudson, the heart of his commission district. By continually yapping at the need for an eight- to 10-field complex, Mariano tried to discredit the consultant's first choice: 24 acres of county-owned, shovel-ready land in Trinity, which would hold four to five softball fields, a pavilion, restaurant and parking.

The parochialism is tiresome. Mariano is elected countywide and his constituency extends beyond the District 5 boundaries.

Mariano's one valid point, inquiring how Pasco would compete against other locations seeking the same tournaments, was ill-timed. It was a question worth asking more than two years ago when the county started on its commitment to seek youth and adult amateur athletes to fill its hotel beds. Then, however, Mariano pushed full steam ahead, touting the benefits of sports marketing with little consideration as to how the county would stack up against existing sports complexes in Central Florida.

Tuesday, he suggested a new study simply as a delay tactic. Another of Mariano's ridiculous red herrings was the prospect of attracting spring training baseball. If he would brush up on county tourism efforts predating his 2004 election, he would be cognizant of the county's tango with spring training baseball in 1992 that proved to be an exorbitant extravagance for the county's modest tourism resources.

Pasco's 2 percent surcharge on overnight accommodations has been accumulating since voters approved the tourist tax in 1990 and now stands at $11.2 million. That represents half the annual proceeds which are earmarked for capital construction to lure additional tourists. Pasco is now poised to invest in sports marketing via a complex of athletic fields after a tentative deal for a tennis stadium near Saddlebrook Resort fell apart.

So, what exactly is the focus? Does the county want to attract out-of-town athletes for weekend tournaments while making fields available to local residents during the week? Use tourism dollars to expand Engle Park in Hudson to appease a constituency there? Build a 10,000-seat stadium for the Chicago Cubs?

Commissioners Michael Cox and Ann Hildebrand grasped the opportunity at hand — a suitable, easily accessible site near a large population, services and hotels that would be built during economic conditions favorable to getting a good product at a good price. Others weren't ready to follow that logic. Commissioner Ted Schrader sought more cost data to provide political coverage for the site not being in Wesley Chapel, and Chairman Pat Mulieri wanted to delay the vote until after the holidays. But, it was Mariano's tactics that embarrassed the commission and tarnished the county's image.

Cox correctly noted the county whiffed on the tennis stadium and shouldn't be willing to do so again with an amateur sports complex. He also highlighted the county's own strategic plan that calls for developing a pair of large-scale public-private partnerships by 2012. If the commission is unwilling to do so, it should just toss out that plan, he said.

Here's a more imperative consideration: If, after 18 years, the Pasco County Commission can't figure out how to spend capital money to attract overnight visitors, why does it still collect the tourist tax?

Pasco commissioners dither over sports complex 12/02/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 2, 2009 5:59pm]
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