Pasco tourism officials consider new additions to their Florida Sports Coast venue offerings

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NEW PORT RICHEY — Even as the pandemic took hold in early 2020, one part of Pasco County’s economy has weathered the storm well — its sport tourism industry.

Lacking a convention center and sandy beaches, the suburban county north of Tampa Bay has bet big on hosting amateur sports competitions to lure tourists. And as COVID-19 shuttered businesses and emptied concert halls, those games continued.

Now, the Pasco County Tourism Development Board plans to diversify its sports portfolio. Consultants hired by the agency say there may be opportunities if they are willing to invest in multi-purpose venues for activities such as CrossFit competitions or boxing tournaments, build an aquatic center or court athletes with special needs.

The report presented to the tourism agency this week by Collective BEST, a St. Petersburg-based consultant, recommends ways Pasco can keep its thriving sports tourism industry going.

“We’ve picked up a lot of speed since we renamed ourselves Florida’s Sport’s Coast” in 2019, said Adam Thomas, director of the Pasco tourism agency. “We want to maintain this momentum.”

Figures Thomas shared with the Pasco County Commission earlier this month explain why tourism, whether from youth sports tournaments or visitors who come for fishing, boating or trails local cycling and hiking trails, improves Pasco’s bottom line.

In 2021, visitors generated $721.7 million in economic impact on the county, an increase of 30.7% from fiscal year 2020 and an increase of 10.6% from 2019, despite the pandemic. This translated to 1.36 million visitors to Pasco County last fiscal year, a 41.5% increase over the prior year and a 30.8% increase over 2019.

Tim Gayson, right, cleans scallops with his wife Kolby Gayson, left, as he returned from scalloping Florida’s Gulf Coast on the Pithlachascotee River Saturday, July 18, 2020. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The practical result was 9,254 jobs supported, $3.6 million in resort taxes collected, $231.6 million in wages and salaries generated, and $511.9 million spent directly by tourists.

Thomas told the Tampa Bay Weather that the popularity of the Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus, which opened in August 2020, demonstrated the strength of the Florida Sports Coast brand. The logical next step, he said, was to hire a consultancy firm with expertise in all areas of tourism to identify gaps that Pasco could fill.

WESLEY CHAPEL -- Giorgi Bezhanishvili slams a dunk on day one of the three-day Tampa Bay Pro Combine, a gathering of more than 40 professional basketball prospects at Pasco County's Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus.  Scott Purks, special for The Times
WESLEY CHAPEL — Giorgi Bezhanishvili slams a dunk on day one of the three-day Tampa Bay Pro Combine, a gathering of more than 40 professional basketball prospects at Pasco County’s Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus. Scott Purks, special for The Times [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]

The report presented by William Knox to the Tourism Development Council outlines the consultant’s research into existing sports venues across the country, in Florida and Pasco, and notes the opportunities.

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“With this information, a glaring disparity has come to light during a thorough review of sports facilities across the country. There are no facilities entirely dedicated to adapted sports,” according to the study. “In addition to able-bodied athletes, there are hundreds of thousands of amateur disabled athletes competing across the country in a variety of sports.”

Even these communities who organize events for athletes with disabilities only provide temporary accommodation rather than adapting them for full-time use.

“Knowing this, Pasco County has a unique opportunity to develop a facility that could accommodate both able-bodied and disabled athletes if proper planning is done,” the consultant concluded.

The consultant said that Pasco could also work directly to develop partnerships with accommodation companies and other businesses that might better cater to para-athletes.

Tennis student Matthew Walton, of Edinburgh, Scotland, left, works on his backhand while instructor Naoufal Elidrissi, of Wesley Chapel, oversees the session Thursday, October 21, 2021, at the Sarah Vande Berg Tennis Center in Zephyrhills.  The 2020 census shows Zephyrhills has become the largest city in Pasco County, just ahead of New Port Richey, and Zephyrhills' population has jumped 29% since 2010.
Tennis student Matthew Walton, of Edinburgh, Scotland, left, works on his backhand while instructor Naoufal Elidrissi, of Wesley Chapel, oversees the session Thursday, October 21, 2021, at the Sarah Vande Berg Tennis Center in Zephyrhills. The 2020 census shows Zephyrhills has become the largest city in Pasco County, just ahead of New Port Richey, and Zephyrhills’ population has jumped 29% since 2010. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Noting that there are few facilities for CrossFit and other strength and fitness competitions, the consultant suggested Pasco consider building a multi-sport venue. “While building a facility specifically dedicated to CrossFit competitions theoretically cannot fill the bookable time, building a facility that can accommodate multiple sports will diversify the schedule and bring in a variety of events and entertainment. activities.”

The consultant also identified another niche that Pasco could fill: providing an aquatics center with an indoor pool in a pool that offered running lanes, a warm-up and cool-down pool and a retractable roof. These features could open up the community to a variety of national and international events and be used by local medical professionals for physical therapy, the consultant noted.

Although the Tourism Development Board did not act on the consultant’s report, members were interested in the possibilities, Thomas said.

“That’s the first step. The second step is funding,” he said.

As Pasco’s tourism team develops its next 10-year plan, these suggestions can be discussed and explored further, Thomas said. The consultant suggests conducting a full feasibility study for the market and proposed sports facility options and expressed optimism about the outcome.

“There is strong potential for a new athletic facility to succeed in Pasco County,” according to the report. “The community and surrounding areas have already had a taste of the sport tourism industry, but there is still capacity to continue growing.”

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