1. Business

Pasco doubles tourist tax to finance sports complex

DADE CITY — Pasco County is doubling its tourist tax to 4 percent to build an indoor sports complex in Wesley Chapel and improve its outdoor boat ramps in west Pasco.

In a series of six votes Tuesday, commissioners formally approved the higher tax on overnight accommodations; a contract with RADD Sports of Sarasota to operate the $26 million multipurpose sports center; a ground lease with Mainsail Wiregrass Hotel for an adjoining $18.7 million, 128-room Mariott Residence Inn, and changes to the development plans for Wiregrass Ranch, where the sports-tourism complex will be located.

"I think it's time we put this money in the bank to work,'' said Commissioner Kathryn Starkey. "It's long overdue that we took that leap and did something big with that money.''

The public hearing on the tourist tax drew just two speakers, and both Steve Domonkos of the Shops at Wiregrass mall and Hope Allen, president and CEO of the Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce, supported the increase as a way to bolster the county's sports tourism business.

"They're shopping. They're eating. They're not just attending a tournament. They're spending money. The entire community benefits,'' said Domonkos.

PAST COVERAGE: Sports tourism gets initial okay.

Earmarking $5 million for expanded boat ramp parking was an acquiescence to Commissioner Mike Wells Jr., who said in April that the county's marina infrastructure wasn't prepared for the potential tourism windfall that could come in 2018 if the county's gulf coast is designated for scallop harvesting.

But the real catch was the multipurpose center, for which commissioners previously earmarked $11 million in accumulated tourist tax proceeds and some sales tax dollars. The increased tourist tax is expected to generate an additional $1.2 million annually and will offset a $20 million loan, three-quarters of which will be used to help build the 98,000-square-foot building and adjoining sports park of seven soccer/football fields, an amphitheater, an event lawn, pedestrian paths and a playground.

As part of the agreement, the five northern fields in the complex must be available for residents to use, and at lease one field must be set aside for public recreation 90 percent of the time.

The multipurpose gymnasium, capable of holding basketball, volleyball, cheerleading, gymnastics and other indoor sports, will be developed on half of the 120 acres donated by the Porter family, owners of the Wiregrass Ranch property. The remaining land will be available for future expansion or other development. The site is east of Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel. The Porters also will be required to accelerate construction of Porter Boulevard, a north-south route that will provide access to the sports park from State Road 54 on the north.

PAST COVERAGE: Tourism plan includes bed tax hike.

The unanimous vote to approve the tax increase followed a pointed debate among Commissioner Jack Mariano and fellow board members. Mariano wanted a delay so the Tourist Development Council could weigh in on the financial details. He also repeated his past criticism of no tourist tax funding being set aside to replenish beaches. Other board members said a delay was unnecessary.

"All those years, you get so close and you get the rug pulled out from under you. We can't have that anymore,'' said commission Chairman Mike Moore.

Past commissions rejected proposed tourist-tax increases four times over a six-year period, most recently in 2015. Since 2009, the county pursued, but never reached agreement to develop a tennis stadium at Saddlebrook Resort and three separate baseball or softball complexes.

PAST COVERAGE: Consultant: Focus on indoor sports.

The county turned to indoor sports after developers, including retired baseball star Gary Sheffield, failed to obtain financing for a baseball complex planned for the same Wiregrass land in 2014. The county picked RADD Sports as its current development partner 11 months ago.

But Mariano dissented when it came to approving the contract with RADD Sports to operate the center. He said the company should have obtained its own financing, rather than having the county pay to build the gymnasium. County staff members, however, said it was easier and less costly to have the county finance construction rather than using RADD Sports' initial plan of private financing and public lease agreements.

"It's either a lease or a loan; either way we're going to be paying it back,'' said Chief Assistant County Attorney David Goldstein.

The higher tax proceeds also could be spread beyond the sports park. RADD Sports must pay the county $60,000 or 11 percent of its gross revenues by the third year of the contract — money that could help pay off the loan and free up tourist tax dollars for other purposes.

Likewise, hotels beyond the Mainsail Mariott Residence Inn are expected to benefit from the sports center. The county's Office of Economic Growth estimated off-site hotels would absorb more than 80 percent of the room demand generated by the sports facility.

The projection comes as the area's hotel inventory is growing. A 92-room Fairfield Inn and Suites already is planned on nearby property in Wiregrass; an 80-room Holiday Inn Express and Suites opened earlier this year east of Interstate 75, and a 125-room Hilton Garden Inn and a 130-room Hyatt Place are under construction on or near State Road 56.

Pasco County voters approved the 2 percent tourist tax on overnight accommodations in 1990. Doubling the tax rate to 4 percent still leaves Pasco's tourist surcharge lower than all of its neighboring counties.