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Pasco County needs to limit using public money to lure private ventures

The quest for a public-private venture to lure tourists to Pasco County has to strike a better balance than simply giving for-profit businesses the deed to public assets.

That is the initial shortcoming of two separate plans to devise tourist attractions within the county: A wakeboard park at a still-to-be-developed public park and beach in Aripeka and a youth sports complex at the Wiregrass development in Wesley Chapel.

The proposals came in response to county requests for how to spend $11.6 million accumulated in tourist tax revenue. Both plans, at least initially, wanted public money spent on privately held property, a violation of state law. Clearly, modifications are needed if either plan is to come to fruition.

The wakeboard park, which would abut the proposed SunWest Harbourtowne resort, sought Pasco County as an investor in what would be a privately owned and operated cable system pulling wakeboarders around a lake. Though the initial plan called for more than $1 million from the tourist tax account, Wake Park Project president Patrick Panakos said the picturesque site along the coast was the most imperative feature to the park's success. He agreed to seek a lease of the county land, finance much of the wakeboard attractions privately, and perhaps take as little at $360,000 in public money to build a second, publicly owned cable-course in the lake.

It is a minimal risk to the county and could open Pasco as a market for a niche adventure sport. But, it also would pay minimal dividends. Panakso said existing cable parks draw about 75 riders daily and he presumed most of the participants would be from the region, not from long distances that would require overnight stays in area hotels.

It's an intriguing idea, but one that can be accomplished more easily with a vendor lease than a long-term capital investment of tourism dollars.

That is not the case at Wiregrass. There, the initial plan calls for a multimillion-dollar county investment to build sports fields on a 120-acre complex, about two-thirds of which would be privately held. The Porter family, owners of Wiregrass Ranch, want to build a high-end complex that could rival Disney's Wide World of Sports in luring youth and amateur athletic tournaments for multi-day stays in Pasco.

The plan, however, is problematic in that the Porters seek to be relieved of a past requirement to set aside 80 acres for a public park, and they want to maintain ownership of the land that would house publicly built facilities.

Commissioners agreed to commit up to $6 million in tourism money toward the project as a starting point on negotiations between the county and the Porter family. Considering the county's past inability to reach an accord on tourism proposals — a tennis stadium near Saddlebrook Resort, and an adult softball complex in Trinity/Odessa — negotiations will be neither quick nor easy. Nor should they be when the idea is to spend public money on private land.

The $25 million Fields of Wiregrass promises a substantially larger venue to attract out of town visitors, but concessions from the private-sector will be needed to provide adequate protection of the public's investment.

Pasco County needs to limit using public money to lure private ventures 12/06/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 6, 2011 8:08pm]
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