Pasco County needs to work on its definition of tourists. More than a year after former Commissioner Michael Cox suggested state law allowed any out-of-county visitor engaged in commerce to be construed as a tourist, the Pasco Commission is still divided on how to measure the value of its day-trippers.
The debate emerged again Tuesday when Commissioner Jack Mariano objected to disbursing promotional dollars to some events — like the Pioneer Days Festival on the grounds of the Pioneer Florida Museum outside Dade City — that produce no measurable hotel stays.
The county charges a 2 percent tax on overnight accommodations to finance tourism promotion. Much of the revenue remains in reserve, earmarked for construction of a tourist attraction that has yet to be defined. The rest is used to promote the county as a tourist destination, cover overhead, and to finance sponsorships and advertising/promotional grants.
Over Mariano's objection, the commission agreed to split $80,000 among 17 events ranging from nearly $18,000 for the Chasco Fiesta to $1,211 for the Land O' Lakes Swampfest.
Mariano's concerns are understandable, but ill-timed. A better opportunity to shape tourism philosophy should come while updating the county's tourism strategic plan. Last year, the commission — with Mariano dissenting — approved a four-year blueprint to spend less money on capital construction and more on advertising and special events.
For two decades, the county has said its tourism focus should be to put heads in beds. It tries to capitalize on the county's natural resources and its athletic facilities to market itself to both nature lovers and sports enthusiasts. But, simultaneously, the county also shares a minimal amount of the tourist tax proceeds with the home-grown festivals, usually benefitting a non-profit organization, that provide a pleasant diversion for visitors and locals alike.
It's not just a matter of tossing money to whomever asks. The grants are awarded according to a sliding scale measuring overnight stays, marketing outside the region, time of year for the event, economic impact and tenure of the sponsoring organization.
It is apparently money well spent. In 2005, a Tourist Development Council-commissioned study discovered the festivals — that celebrate everything from seafood to motorcycles — collectively were the county's most popular tourist attraction accounting for nearly 60 percent of out-of-county visitors. Given that data, the county is smart to continue lending a hand to these events.
It also is easy to share Mariano's excitement about the potential for the long-term benefit of sports marketing, considering the successes of a national lacrosse competition in Wesley Chapel, regional soccer tournaments around the county, and the bicycling, running and triathlon events during the year. But, making that the near exclusive focus of the county's tourism work while ignoring the opportunities from so-called stay-cations could prove counter-productive.
Sports marketing is highly competitive. Every one of Pasco's neighboring counties has facilities that can serve as host to amateur athletic competitions. But, how many of them can boast a Kumquat Festival?