Commissioner Henry Wilson's shot in the dark ricocheted off target almost immediately. Five days ago, Wilson pitched to his fellow commissioners the idea of a high-end gun range in Pasco County to lure tourists, generate revenue for the county parks and recreation department and to replace the Sheriff's Office shooting site at the Pasco-Hernando Community College in Gowers Corner that, he said, was scheduled to be closed for future use as an administration building.
Well, you can shoot down one of the supposed attributes right away. The PHCC gun range moved from Gowers Corner nine years ago and now is located at the college's law enforcement training center at its east Pasco campus outside Dade City. It is not scheduled for closing. The awkward rationalization offered afterward from the Sheriff's Office that the east Pasco site is inconvenient for deputies does not validate Wilson's pitch, which clearly is in its infancy.
For two decades, Pasco County has been contemplating ideas on how to spend the capital funds accumulated by its 2 percent tourist tax on overnight accommodations. Wilson's gun range just joins a long list of schemes that proved, so far, to be unworkable, unrealistic or unattainable. The ideas came from people, commissioners and even vested interests seeking public money to finance their own private ventures and included a concert amphitheater; a convention center; spring training baseball stadium; a domed theme park; rodeo arena; a floating island in the Gulf of Mexico; regional headquarters for Little League; a tennis stadium; a lacrosse complex; Charlie Daniels Western World and Theme Park; an ice skating rink; professional soccer; a children's hands-on museum; beaches; softball fields; and replica baseball parks. About the only thing missing is a ring for Ultimate Fighting Championships.
There have been consultant studies that tabbed the tennis stadium as the county's best investment and another, more recent report from Sportsplex USA identified county-owned land in Trinity as the best site for a tournament-caliber softball complex. Both ideas died when private-sector partners withdrew from negotiations with the county.
Wilson thinks the county can again try to partner with a private company to build/operate a gun range and he suggested potential sites: the existing Tampa Bay Sporting Clays range along Ehren Cutoff; the Serenova environmental preserve and the Cross Bar Ranch in north-central Pasco.
The county has been unable to overcome environmental objections to building the planned Ridge Road Extension through Serenova and Commissioner Pat Mulieri correctly noted the water district's proposal to open some preserved land to hunting has drawn public criticism. Expect more of the same for a gun range.
Likewise, Cross Bar, except for 7 acres containing public water wells, is owned by Pinellas County Utilities and a business venture on that land would not bolster the bottom line of the Pasco parks department. Trying to advance development there also fails to recognize that Pasco has been lobbying for the state to acquire the land for permanent preservation. Commissioner Ted Schrader suggested a fourth site — Connerton where the county's jail is located.
Of Wilson's three possibilities, the 220-acre sporting clays land is the most logical. It already is up and running, privately owned and withstood a legal litigation prior to opening. Still, the environmental concerns surrounding that location, near Tampa Bay Water's Cypress Creek wells, would need to be re-examined. Equally key is a question that Wilson did not address but should be answered before progressing:
If there is truly demand for a tournament-level, profit-making gun range that would draw visitors to Pasco, why hasn't the private sector developed one already?