NEW PORT RICHEY — A divided Pasco Commission voted to allocate another $568,000 for the SunWest Park, bringing the project’s total budget to $4 million.
The extra funding should allow the county to complete the first phase of the park this year, but it won’t be enough to build a 20-foot-wide boardwalk along the north bank of the lake. Commissioners weren’t willing to bust the budget to pay now for features, such as a kids’ splash park, expanded parking or a second set of restrooms, that were always planned for a later phase.
“At the end of the day it provides a very nice amenity for the Hudson area to use,” Commissioner Ted Schrader said.
Chairman Jack Mariano fought hard for the additional funding, and there was unanimous support for using $118,000 from the county’s tree replacement fund to offset the landscaping costs
The real debate was over Mariano’s request to spend nearly $1 million in tourist tax revenue for other upgrades at the park.
“This makes perfect sense to me,” Mariano said, noting that the Tourist Development Council had signed off on the expenditure. “To me, this is a very easy decision.”
But Mariano didn’t stop there. He also pressed commissioners to dip into the county’s reserve fund for another $1.5 million to pay for the second set of restrooms, the splash pad and additional parking. Assistant County Administrator Heather Grimes estimated it would take 16 years to pay back the debt using tourist tax revenue, but if the commissioners eliminate the parking, the county would be able to pay back the debt in five years.
None of the other commissioners shared his enthusiasm. Commissioner Kathryn Starkey has questioned the need for a splash park next to the lake. “I’ve never seen a splash park at a public beach,” she said.
Schrader wasn’t sold on the tourist potential of beach volleyball, noting that the tournaments proposed for the park wouldn’t produce enough hotel nights to justify spending nearly $1 million of tourism construction funds. “We also need to look at what are the closest hotels to this facility? They’re in Hernando County,” he said.
Schrader said the county would be better off spending the tourism money on a future hockey facility in Wesley Chapel. Two private developers have ice rinks in the works just off Interstate 75.
Mariano insisted that hotel operators in Hudson “are dying to see this happen.” He also pointed out that commissioners already have allocated $11 million in tourist tax revenue to Wesley Chapel area for a future youth baseball complex and to expand the Wesley Chapel District Park. “You haven’t spent a dime here,” he argued.
Commissioners have been struggling to find ways to pay for the park, located at the former SunWest mine in Aripeka. They signed a contract with Clearwater native Patrick Panakos to build and operate a world-class wakeboarding park on the lake. But first the county has to finish building a new entrance from U.S. 19, parking lots, a restroom and beaches.
Commissioner Pat Mulieri offered a compromise - to allocate $450,000 of the tourism revenue for SunWest. “I think we need to do something spectacular for Pasco County,” Mulieri said. “Sometimes you have to reach out, grab that golden ring and go for it.”
Even after they called the vote, Mariano tried to convince the others to spend $186,000 for the second set of restrooms. He said the north beach and wakepark will be 500 yards from the closest restroom. Schrader argued that if Panakos wants a restroom at the wakeboarding park when it opens, he should be the one to pay for it.
Four commissioners voted for the motion. To Mariano, the end result was anything but spectacular.
“Wonderful work folks,” he said. “I’ll let you deal with the first family who can’t make it to the bathroom.”