Kudos to Pasco Commissioner Henry Wilson for starting the year off with a bang. Three years after the commission killed a proposed increase in Pasco's tourist tax rate, Wilson said he believes the county should reconsider.
It's a bold idea worthy of public debate and it garnered immediate support from Commissioners Pat Mulieri and Kathryn Starkey. Mulieri is a longtime advocate for raising the tax. Starkey, like Wilson, was not on the board in 2010 when a similar proposal failed to collect support from the required fourth-fifths commission majority.
But the idea died then because of Commissioner Jack Mariano's parochialism over a proposed tourism project outside his district and Commissioner Ted Schrader's shortsighted suggestion to tap reserve accounts to increase the tourism advertising budget. The new proposal rightly will be part of a broader discussion of the county's tourism promotional efforts in the coming month. Commissioners should consider not just the amount of the tax, but the allocation of its proceeds toward capital construction, promotion and overhead.
One recurring argument should be put to rest. Contrary to protests from some members of the hospitality industry, there is no empirical data to suggest a higher tax will put Pasco's hoteliers at a competitive disadvantage. Hernando and Citrus counties charge a 3 percent tax, and Pinellas, Hillsborough and Polk counties charged a 5 percent bed tax.
Pasco has collected a voter-approved 2 percent tax on overnight accommodations since 1991 to pay for advertising, promotion and to develop a tourist attraction to bring more visitors to the county. After multiple false starts, the commission agreed last year to spend $14 million in tourist tax and park impact fees to develop an amateur sports complex on land donated by the Porter family at Wiregrass Ranch in Wesley Chapel. That project is pending as the county begins searching for a private vendor to operate and maintain the sports fields after construction.
This week, Wilson suggested doubling the tourist tax to 4 percent, a figure that could bring in an additional $740,000 annually. Though details are still to be determined, the money could be used to add lacrosse fields at the county-owned Wesley Chapel District Park — site of annual national lacrosse tournament — as well as increasing the county's advertising budget to promote Pasco on a national and international scale.
Wilson said he suggested the increase because tourism is a key part of the county's economic development effort "and I want to make sure we properly fund it.''
It's a logical suggestion considering the return on investment. The state tourism agency, Visit Florida, reported $177 in tourism spending and $11 in new sales tax generated by every dollar it spends on marketing. Pasco County has favored sports marketing and year-old data shows that $90,000 worth of county sponsorships was parlayed into 45,000 visitors booking 12,000 stays in local motels and an estimated economic impact of $10 million.
Particularly noteworthy is the Dick's Sporting Goods Tournament of Champions lacrosse competition in Wesley Chapel. It brings 3,700 hotel nights and an estimated $3 million to the local economy and now is scheduled annually for Dec. 29-31 to offer extended vacation stays for participants and their families. The just-concluded tournament helped sell out all of the hotels in Wesley Chapel.
"It's a nice problem to have when you have no place to put people,'' said county tourism director Eric Keaton.
Indeed. The question to the commission is whether they want more revenue to try to replicate that tourism success throughout the year.