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County has gotten lost on road to luring tourists

By C.T. BOWEN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 28, 2000


Pasco County wants to attract the Clark Griswolds of the world.

You know the type. They are the vacationers whose ultimate destination is a theme park, but who spend considerable time and money exploring the sights on the way there.

In the 1983 theatrical release National Lampoon's Vacation, Chevy Chase's Griswold planned family visits to a mud house and to the second-largest ball of twine on the face of the Earth en route to Wally World.

Pasco can't offer tourist traps like that -- just as well, considering the Griswolds never made it to the side attractions anyway -- but a member of the Tourist Development Council did suggest Thursday that the county attempt to exploit a similar niche in conjunction with its pursuit of eco-tourism and nature-based attractions.

"It sounds chintzy, but everybody's got one," said Pat Moran, who operates the Comfort Inn on U.S. 19 in Port Richey.

Moran's commentary came during a TDC brainstorming session intended to set goals for the coming year. One immediate goal should be to discount his notion of acquiring an albino alligator or something similarly tacky to lure Clark and Helen Griswold to Pasco County.

But the county is positioned appropriately to be a secondary stop for vacationers intending to stand in lines at Busch Gardens in Tampa and the Disney World complex in Orlando. East Pasco's rolling hills certainly are inviting after a day of roller coasters. Maybe someone will offer a Mickey Mouse meets Mother Nature package deal.

The round-table discussion Thursday was important considering the tourist board only meets four times a year and two of the longest-serving members are gone. Commission Chairwoman Pat Mulieri picked herself to replace Ann Hildebrand, and Peter Altman left the board when his New Port Richey mayoral term expired earlier this month.

The two-hour dialogue also indicated that nearly 10 years after voters approved a tax on overnight accommodations to build a tourist attraction and to promote existing events, Pasco County's tourism effort remains in its infancy.

For instance:

Thirteen months after business and tourism leaders authorized a $45,000 marketing and economic development study, the county has yet to invite consultants to submit proposals to do the work.

The study will investigate the feasibility of building a tourist attraction in Pasco and where it would go, and accumulate demographic data to help entice new businesses. The study won't be ready until nine months after a consultant is selected.

In other words, this has not been a priority. Tourism officials seeking information about Pasco County now receive a smile and a lot of enthusiasm, but no hard facts about the amount of discretionary cash and other pertinent information concerning visitors here.

County commissioners earlier this week ignored a TDC request to extend the contract of its public relations consultant, Honey Rand, for six months and instead voted 4-1 for a one-year contract. The TDC sought the change so the public relations contract could be considered again in the fall when Rand's other contract with the board, for advertising, is due to expire.

It is a minor point, but a subtle example of a commission that doesn't particularly respect its own tourism advisers or Mulieri, the commission's representative on the TDC.

The Visitors & Convention Bureau is unable to fulfill the most-requested information at its welcome centers -- a county map. Nobody produces one.

And, most notably, the advisory board members acknowledge that they don't have a good idea of exactly what attractions exist here. To combat that, they've scheduled their own visits to county and state park sites and the Flatwood Adventures ecology tour offered at the Starkey Ranch.

It is a sound idea. Moran, for example, moved to Pasco from Georgia three years ago but is unfamiliar with the offerings in Dade City and at the Pioneer Florida Museum.

And the Starkey Wilderness Park, one of the tour stops, supposedly is the largest county park in Florida. That should appeal to those searching for a gimmick.

Now, if we can just convince people, Pasco County can be the cheese in west-central Florida's mouse trap.

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