A couple of Pasco commissioners think a hurricane shelter and health care clinic can double as a tourist attraction. Not coastal residents fleeing a storm, but sports-happy parents toting their children to a youth basketball tournament.
That was the rationalization offered by Commissioner Jack Mariano who advocated expanding the still-unbuilt shelter to incorporate a basketball court. Cost of the late expansion — essentially raising the height of the roof 42 inches — carried a $350,000 price tag. Mariano and Commissioner Pat Mulieri said the overrun could be covered by tourist-tax money, dollars that, by law, must be spent attracting overnight visitors to the county. Tournament revenue would offset operational costs, they reasoned.
Fortunately, the rest of the commission offered more substantive reasoning. Commissioners Ted Schrader, Ann Hildebrand and Michael Cox voted down the plan 3-2.
The idea is problematic because it seeks to raid, but certainly not empty, the tourist tax account at a time the county is putting the finishing touches on a multimillion-dollar deal to build a tennis stadium at Saddlebrook and is investigating a themed baseball and softball complex modeled after replica major league baseball stadiums. It, too, will cost millions of dollars. It is imprudent to seek yet another capital project before the commission makes a final decision on the baseball proposal.
Just as important, the hurricane shelter is hardly an ideal spot to serve as an out-of-town draw. Its inland location is intended to be out of harm's way of coastal flooding, but the relatively remote spot on Denton Avenue in Hudson keeps it from easy access to the main, multi-laned north-south corridors of Interstate 75 and the Suncoast Parkway. Relying on U.S. 19 to the west for access guarantees difficulty drawing people from no more than one county away, which won't translate into overnight stays in area motels.
The $7.5-million regional hurricane shelter in Pasco has been in the works for more than two years and is intended to serve as a 1,000-bed refuge for evacuees and contain a Health Department clinic and a new primary care facility to be operated by Premier Community HealthCare Group. It is viewed as a key component to serving the medically needy. Originally slated to open in time for the 2009 hurricane season, the building is now expected to be available in January 2010 and also could be used as a large meeting space and elderly nutrition site.
It will serve an imperative purpose by providing for the health and welfare of Pasco and other nearby residents. Expecting it to double as a tourist attraction is unrealistic and indicative of commissioners willing to entertain whimsical spending of the tourist tax absent substantial public dialogue.
The notion also overshadowed more palatable action by Mariano and the rest of the commission: agreeing to pony up $53,000 to ensure the building is designed and certified as environmentally friendly. That is better use of public money.