OLDSMAR — Competitors young and old converged on the town of Oldsmar this past weekend from all over the globe.
Seizing upon a fast-growing Olympic sport, the hilly, dirt track at Canal Park has become the No. 1 tournament spot in the eastern United States for BMX races – bicycle motorcross – but city leaders fear it could lose that distinction.
The track has hosted as many as 1,200 people from 16 nations at the popular Gator Nationals competition each March, an event that started here in 2003 and has seen participation – and tourism – spike since BMX became an Olympic sport at the 2008 Games in Beijing.
Officials with the sport’s governing body, USA BMX, say the track could be expanded into one of the only Olympic-caliber complexes in the nation, and part of a circuit of new race venues that would bring thousands more throughout the year.
The city has raised half of the money to build such a track and hopes to open within a year, but it needs the county to cover the rest, about $1.1 million in bed tax dollars.
The gain could be 10,000 visitors a year, from Europe, Latin America and across the country, staying in Pinellas County hotels and spending money at the beaches.
If Oldsmar doesn’t revamp its track, though, city leaders say they may lose what they have; in fact, Sarasota County has already puts funds aside to build up its BMX track, Oldsmar Mayor Doug Bevis says.
“We need to move this project forward,” Bevis told the Pinellas County Tourist Development Council this past week.
“I’m afraid that if we don’t do this in Pinellas County that, not only will we lose the progress going forward, but we will lose everything that we’ve already built – the 10 years we’ve put into this, the 2,000 heads in beds, the 16 countries, the 38 states.”
Bevis was joined by John David, chief operating officer for USA BMX, at the monthly council meeting in Clearwater, which took place days before the weekend-long Gator Nationals competition.
USA BMX has put its full support behind the Oldsmar track, David told them, even helping the city to draft designs for it, but there’s no guarantee the annual tournament will continue here if higher grade facilities are built elsewhere.
The plan is to build a two-tiered track, with a lower hill for amateurs and a much higher one, more than 20 feet, for serious athletes that would rival the Olympic training grounds in Chula Vista, Calif.
Oldsmar would be part of a larger circuit of “supercross” tracks stretching from BMX USA headquarters in Gilbert, Ariz., to the East Coast, where competition and training would take place throughout the year.
“It literally becomes a year ‘round training ground,” David said.
“South American teams will come and stay weeks, if not months, in these communities. Some European teams will come weeks in advance.”
The recent growth of the sport in Oldsmar and elsewhere shows great future potential, David said.
Daily attendance at the Gator Nationals went from 1,428 in 2008 to a peak of 5,103 in 2012, ahead of the London Olympics, and still drew 4,259 last year.
BMX USA in that time has increased its membership from about 51,500 to 71,500, and a market study found that it was the second-fastest growing youth sport in 2011.
Bevis said all this translates into “heads in beds” for area hotels. Fans and participants booked 2,000 room nights in 2013, he said.
A feasibility study by Clearwater-based Sports Facilities Advisory projected 7,400 bookings within the first year of the new track being built, and even more if BMX USA begins hosting World Cup events here.
The consultant says it advises 70 percent of its clients that their project is either not feasible or requires significant changes, but the Oldsmar track has a high likelihood of being successful and profitable, according to the study.
Of course, a major condition for these projections is that the track opens debt-free.
Revenue from the existing track mainly goes to the nonprofit club that operates and maintains it. Bevis and David told the tourist council it would be difficult to finance the $1 million in debt and pay it off over time.
The mayor pleaded with the council to recommend the full $1.1 million to the Pinellas Board of County Commissioners, who ultimately decide how to spend funds generated by the 5 percent tax on overnight hotel stays.
“What we’re looking for is some positive action from the TDC that shows that you support what we’re about and what it does for the economic impact on Pinellas County,” Bevis said.
The council, however, only asked questions at the Wednesday meeting, with county commissioner and TDC Chairwoman Karen Seel advising Bevis that his request would be taken up at a joint meeting between the TDC and the commission on April 1.
The commission is considering whether to raise the bed tax from 5 to 6 percent after exceeding a state benchmark of $600 million in hotel sales last year, potentially adding several million dollars for tourism projects in the county.
Numerous cities and groups already have shown interest in the money, including the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and the city of Gulfport, which is requesting money to renourish its municipal beach.
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