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  1. Pasco

Is Pasco too hospitable to its growing hospitality industry?

DADE CITY — Commissioner Kathryn Starkey wonders if Pasco County is being too hospitable to the hospitality industry.

Specifically, she wants to end the lucrative perk of waiving road construction costs for the new hotels coming to the county. But the response to her pitch was nearly universal: Don't roll up the welcome mat on a booming industry.

Starkey made her sentiments known during a Sept. 25 workshop in Dade City in which staff members and a consultant briefed commissioners on updating the county's mobility fees. Those assessments, first adopted in 2011 and revised in 2014, are charged to most new development to pay for road construction and transit costs tied to growth.

In an effort to reinvigorate a then-struggling economy, the 2011 formula waived fees for industrial development, new office buildings and hotels, and subsidized their associated transportation costs with property taxes.

"It's a very, very healthy business,'' said Starkey. "I don't know if we need to incentivize. I think they're going to come anyway.''

Bill Oliver, the consultant drafting the updated fees, said afterward that the incentives equate to $5,300 per hotel room. That is a nearly $652,000 subsidy for a 123-room hotel, like the Woodspring Suites proposed for U.S. 19 in Hudson and a second hotel near the Florida Hospital Center Ice in Wesley Chapel.

"Do they really need an incentive for them to come here at zero?'' asked Starkey. "We need to have good roads for those people (hotel guests) to drive on, and that's where that money goes.''

Since 2015, five hotels opened along the State Road 54/56 corridor between Trinity and Wesley Chapel, and three more are under construction and nearing completion. Three more hotels are proposed for Wesley Chapel, plus one in Trinity and the Woodspring Suites in Hudson. And Plaza Hospitality LLC of Clearwater, which purchased the Holiday Inn Express and Suites in Trinity for $12.2 million in January, also acquired the adjoining 1.88-acre parcel on Corporate Center Drive in March for $770,000.

"We have product. We didn't have product before," said Commissioner Mike Moore, chairman of the Tourist Development Council. "I guess my fear is, do we have enough product yet?''

Moore noted the economic benefits to surrounding small businesses when an influx of overnight visitors dine, shop and purchase gasoline. The country has 35 hotels with just fewer than 3,000 rooms and reported a countywide occupancy rate of 74.3 percent for the first six months of 2018.

"I love to see the hotel industry, especially coming toward west Pasco. If that's what it takes to get them over here, let's zero them out to help create tourism on the west side,'' said Kelly Miller, of Colonial Hills, a member of the citizens advisory committee that reviewed the mobility fees.

During the workshop, Commissioners Jack Mariano and Ron Oakley both panned Starkey's proposal. In an interview afterward, Mike Cox,a member of the Pasco Planning Commission and one of the original investors in the Holiday Inn Express and Suites in Trinity, offered similar sentiment.

"The market's going to dictate what hotels get built and don't get built,'' said Cox. "Mobility fee incentives would help them on the front end getting started, but ultimately they have to have heads in beds.''

"It's working,'' said Cox. "I wouldn't change it.''

The Pasco County Planning Commission is scheduled to consider the mobility fee ordinance in October, and county commissioners must hold two public hearings before adopting the revised fee schedule, which is largely unchanged for most categories. The new ordinance will be in effect until an update in 2023.

Contact C.T. Bowen or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2.