Pasco commissioners finally decided to swing for the fences. Tuesday, after initial hesitancy about exhausting all of the county's unspent tourist construction money, commissioners agreed the fields at Wiregrass Ranch proposal is worthy of an increased public investment.
It was the correct call. Failing to commit the additional $5.5 million in tourist tax dollars would have scuttled the Wiregrass proposal and left the commission with a deserved reputation as indecisive minor leaguers.
Instead, they unanimously agreed to spend up to $14 million, including $11.5 million accumulated since the inception of the tourist tax in 1991, to try to turn 120 acres of pasture uplands into a dozen lacrosse/soccer fields and eight softball/baseball diamonds. The intent is to lure sports tourists to Pasco County for youth and amateur athletic tournaments.
It is certainly pricey and all but wipes out any attempts to develop a tourist draw elsewhere in the county. But the potential reward of 100,000 motel stays annually represents a more than eightfold increase of the current tourist business attributed to sports marketing in Pasco. The commission could not ignore the return on investment.
The county originally offered $8.5 million to the Porter family, the ranch owners who originally proposed the complex, on a smaller scale, in Wesley Chapel. The rising price tag is attributed to a two-pronged sports complex. The lacrosse fields are an immediate concern as the county seeks to honor a commitment to continue as host of the Dick's Sports Goods Tournament of Champions lacrosse event. The baseball/softball diamonds are in response to a February report from the Florida Sports Foundation, which suggested the county invest in either a large-scale softball complex or gymnasium.
Developers projected the 20 fields would draw thousands of teams annually with three-quarters of the participants traveling at least 60 miles, the trigger distance for booking an overnight stay for a multi-day tournament.
The commerce generated by "no vacancy'' signs, filled restaurants and busy stores is easy to envision. However, there are significant details to be ironed out in a management agreement between the Porters and the county and that is the point at which high-profile proposals fell apart in the past. An attractive and productive tourism draw is the desired result, but the county also must protect the public's $14 million investment.
Much work remains, but the commission was smart to allow this proposal to proceed.