The strategy of using sports as a tourist attraction is in need of a game-changer if Pasco County wants to remain competitive with other locales. Tuesday, county commissioners and the appointed Tourist Development Council learned two of the county's largest athletic-related draws are leaving Pasco and a third is being romanced by a nationally known venue in Bradenton.
Combined, the three events (the state high school cross country meet, an extreme cross country event called Tough Mudder and the Dick's Sporting Goods' national lacrosse tournament) generated 9,300 hotel night stays courtesy of a minimal public investment of $32,500 in tourism sponsorship money. It is a significant setback because the three events accounted for three-quarters of the 2011 hotel nights attributed to Pasco's sports marketing while only taking a little more than a third of the sponsorship dollars.
The bleak news followed a report from the Florida Sports Foundation that affirmed the position of sports marketing advocate Commissioner Jack Mariano: The county may be thinking too small as it considers a bricks-and-mortar project to broaden Pasco's tourism appeal.
The county now is in negotiations with the Porter Family to develop a privately operated, but publicly owned $25 million athletic field complex in Wesley Chapel to be known as Fields of Wiregrass.
That plan includes acres of soccer fields and a configuration of up to six softball fields. The commission has said it would commit up to $6 million in unspent tourism money on the project and also is considering a substantially smaller contribution to a proposed wake-boarding attraction at the yet-to-be-built county park adjacent to the proposed Sunwest Harbourtowne resort in Aripeka.
But, Stephen Rodriguez, vice president of the Florida Sports Foundation, offered other alternatives. The county should consider investing in a softball complex of at least eight fields to attract tournaments and/or build a 40,000-square-foot gymnasium and recreation center. That's almost three times the size of the existing county gyms in Land O'Lakes, Hudson and Holiday. The county has a sufficient inventory of soccer fields for the time being, Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez pointed to the Estero Community Park Recreation Center in Lee County as a model. There, a 40,000-square-foot recreation center has three full basketball courts or four volleyball courts, locker rooms, fitness center, a computer lab, game room, teen center, art studio and several classrooms/meeting rooms. The facility is booked for events or competitions for three weekends this month alone.
Pasco County probably has room at the undeveloped second phase of the Wesley Chapel District Park, the original plans for which included a recreation center and swimming pool. But such an investment raises other questions. Lee County, for instance, charges membership fees for its facility and both Mariano and Commissioner Henry Wilson are looking to kill Pasco's park fees. Likewise, the ongoing maintenance costs have to be taken into account. In Lee County, a staff of 10 people is assigned to the recreation center.
Unfortunately, these ideas never were explored at the joint meeting of the commission and TDC, which instead dissolved into the minutiae of whether to cut $10,000 from the annual tourism grants allocated to local festivals.
The importance of sports marketing is underscored by the favorable return on investment. For $90,000 worth of sports event sponsorships, the county played host to 45,000 visitors, who booked 12,000 nights in local hotels and motels and produced an estimated economic impact of $10 million.
This was a missed opportunity. Commissioners can lament the success of sports marketing in neighboring Polk County or they can try to copy it with a commitment in facilities and financing that has eluded Pasco County for a dozen years.