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County looks for its niche in state tourism industry


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 14, 2000

Pasco County wants to market tourism's new frontier -- old Florida.

It can't compete with the beaches and the theme parks of its not-so-distant neighbors. It can't afford spring training baseball. And, it has only one legitimate nature-based tourist attraction: the Flatwoods Adventure Tour at the Starkey family's Anclote River Ranch.

Still, Mother Nature beats Mickey Mouse, Mama Guava and marine life in a tank to Pasco officials as they seek a niche in Florida's tourism industry.

Two weeks ago, the county's tourism advisory board brainstormed ideas. This week, the board spent two days touring the Starkey ranch, county parks and other outdoor venues to become more familiar with the county's offerings. I tagged along for the west Pasco portion of the junket, which, in a serendipitous moment, followed immediately my own family's long-planned three-day migration to Orlando for theme-park visits celebrating the offsprings' birthdays.

A few observations from the double-barreled dose of Hawaiian shirt excursions amid assurances to the Internal Revenue Service that this column does not mean intentions to write off the Orlando trip as a business expense:

Slow-moving eastbound traffic on State Road 54 through Wesley Chapel at 4:30 on a weekday afternoon rivaled anything we encountered in Orlando, including notoriously congested Interstate 4.

Pasco doesn't have enough flashing signs, giant plastic flamingos and alligators or stores boasting "Towels -- $3.99" to be a legitimate tourist destination.

Trolling along a working ranch aboard an open-air former school bus sure beats waiting in line 60 minutes to get soaked on a roller coaster. But probably not to a 7-year-old.

Jay B. Starkey recognizes the limited attention span of children. Tours for school kids focus less on the ranch and more on ranch hands. It's called the cowboy tour.

Two stops on the Pasco tour offer unintentional opportunities to compare new and old Florida.

The recently opened Key Vista Park on Bailee's Bluff Road in Holiday is a 101-acre treat that allows nature enthusiasts to walk to the edge of the coastal water for fishing or bird-watching. At the same time, heavy equipment lurches across the street from the park entrance as development of the 750-home Key Vista subdivision is under way.

Likewise, the start of the Flatwoods Adventure tour must compete with the sights and sounds of traffic on adjacent State Road 54.

The Starkeys are aware of their property's shortcoming and note it will only grow worse as the state widens the highway in the near future. To compensate, the tour's origination will be moved north on the ranch property, allowing visitors to park their cars amid the more serene environment of slash pines and palmetto palms.

Pasco isn't alone in its attempts to lure dollars away from Disney. Seminole County, for instance, is directly north of Orlando and markets its tourism efforts as the "natural complement to your Central Florida vacation," pushing the beauty of the St. Johns River, airboat rides, alligator viewing on a 10,000-acre lake and other nature-based tourism opportunities.

Not everybody is eager to expand eco-tourism in Florida. The Wall Street Journal reported last week on the infighting between representatives of Florida's traditional tourism giants -- hoteliers and theme parks -- and those seeking to increase state dollars to promote rural Florida's tourist opportunities. At stake is a potential $3-million boost to promote eco-tourism.

Pasco will have its own decision to make sometime next year. Right now, its tourism promotions treat culture/history, sports and eco-tourism equally. But Tuesday the county releases a so-called request for proposals (RFP in bureaucratic lingo) seeking a consultant to study the county's tourism potential and recommend its likely long-term direction.

The proposals are due June 8 and the study could take nine months. The long-awaited report will tell Pasco County whether a sports facility or race track or amphitheater or any other tourist attraction can be self-supporting here.

Interest is expected to be high because the county has accumulated nine years' worth of revenue from its tourist tax, a 2 percent charge on overnight accommodations that currently generates about $685,000 annually. Half of that is spent on promotion and administration annually, but the remainder sits collecting interest as it awaits a tourist project suitor.

A bigpile of money in the bank? Now, there's an attraction.

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