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Pasco sports complex plan could use a few real tourists

My job description requires me to travel regularly to Hernando County. While there I purchase lunch, and periodically a cup of coffee at Starbucks and a tank of gasoline before the drive home.

At least twice a week during the elder offspring's club soccer season, we hop on Interstate 75 for practice at the New Tampa Community Park. Some evenings we'll grab a bottle of water at a nearby convenience store or buy a late-night McDonald's dinner for the ravenous teenager before leaving Hillsborough County for Land O'Lakes.

I am no longer a commuting worker or stressed soccer dad. I am a tourist. No loud Hawaiian shirt. No zinc oxide on the nose. No unlimited use of the debit card required.

Borrowing the language of Florida statutes, Pasco Commissioner Michael Cox on Tuesday expanded his definition of a tourist from an overnight visitor to a visitor from another county who participates in commerce during his or her stay.

Though it's a ridiculously expansive characterization — 60,000 tourists leave Pasco County every day for their jobs in other counties — it helped move a divided commission toward a reasonable step in its fledgling sports marketing effort. Heads in beds became bucks in tills as long as the wallet belongs to a non-Pasco resident.

On a pair of 4-1 votes, with Commissioner Jack Mariano (who else?) objecting, the commission agreed to resurrect its working relationship with California-based consultants Sportsplex USA and to proceed with a projected softball complex on 24 acres of county-owned land along Trinity Boulevard in west Pasco.

Mariano repeated his contention that a four- to five-field complex is too small to host the substantially sized tournaments he envisions as tourist draws. But he also confirmed his true motivation, whether intentional or not, by letting slip that he wanted to explore "what's the best idea to deal with the whole Hudson area.''

More appropriately, commissioners should be asking, What's the best idea for the whole county?

Sportsplex USA and the county are scheduled to partner on the project using a mix of public money from the tourism tax, park impact fees and even a previous bond issue to build the fields and restaurant. If a management contract is negotiated successfully, Sportsplex will operate the facility with local leagues playing on weeknights and tournaments aimed at out-of-towners scheduled for most weekends.

The commission also extended its benevolence beyond adult softball and unanimously attempted to placate the Saddlebrook Resort, Wesley Chapel business interests, lacrosse enthusiasts and even some soccer diehards who might be interested in spending their afternoons watching a minor-league soccer team hold preseason practice.

The commission agreed to seek formal proposals from the private sector for a sports events center on 24 acres of county-owned land adjacent to the Saddlebrook Resort that previously had been identified as the site of a tennis stadium. The tennis tourism idea died last year when the county and Saddlebrook were unable to come to terms on managing the stadium. The so-called events center is being pitched as an auxiliary site for the once-a-year Dick's Sporting Goods Tournament of Champions that recently year brought 53 high-school-aged lacrosse teams to Wesley Chapel for a three-day competition. Saddlebrook representatives also have said the complex could double as a training facility for the Tampa Bay Rowdies, a new professional soccer team scheduled to begin play this year.

It's a problematic proposal that, on its surface, is geared for narrow use by too few entities. The written details should prove enlightening, though we expect limited response. Realistically, what other private interest is going to make a bid to operate a set of public fields that are only accessible via the gated entrance of the Saddlebrook Resort?

On the other hand, the possibilities just might be limitless. What if the Tampa Bay Rowdies actually do play their games in Hillsborough, but travel to Wesley Chapel for training?

Then they meet the new definition of tourists.

Pasco sports complex plan could use a few real tourists 01/13/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 13, 2010 8:02pm]
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