Despite unanticipated challenges of the COVID-19 crisis, Pasco County still had much to celebrate in terms of growth, tourism and economic development.
That was the primary theme of “TeamUp! Building a Strong Economy Together,” an event hosted by Experience Florida’s Sports Coast (FSC) and Pasco Economic Development Council — two marketing organizations charged with driving the success of the county’s economy.
The May 6 event was held at AdventHealth Center Ice in Wesley Chapel, with 175 socially distanced guests attending in person, and others taking part remotely.
The evening ceremony highlighted accomplishments of both marketing organizations, corporate businesses, entrepreneurs, hoteliers, attraction partners and restaurateurs.
The idea for the special gala was spurred from a conversation between Pasco EDC president and CEO Bill Cronin and FSC tourism director Adam Thomas, regarding the economic struggles both corporate businesses and tourism industry partners had faced in the previous year because of COVID-19.
Blending the two brands, TeamUp! featured a figure skating showcase, networking hour, awards dinner and joint economic presentation fronted by Cronin and Thomas, along with other speakers.
Also, FSC and Pasco EDC screened their first collaborative video showcasing Pasco as an attractive place to live, work and play.
The six-minute video takes a bird’s eye and grounded tour around the county, stopping at popular destinations while delving into specific need-to-know information for those looking to relocate their businesses, travel to the destination, or host a conference or event in the area.
Various awards were bestowed, as well, honoring those who have made a lasting impression on the county’s diverse and growing economy:
Experience Florida’s Sports Coast Awards
- Chairman’s Choice Award: Congressman Gus Bilirakis
- Lodging Partner of the Year: SpringHill Suites by Marriott Tampa-Suncoast Parkway
- Tourism Legacy Award: Thomas Dempsey, founder of Saddlebrook Resort & Spa
Pasco EDC Awards
- Leadership Award: Dr. Arthur Kirk Jr., president emeritus of Saint Leo University
- Recruitment Project of the Year: Santander Consumer USA
- Expansion Project of the Year: The Soule Co.
The evening concluded with a special keynote address by Mike Rayburn, who blended comedy, music and thought-provoking messaging — while sharing his story of going from playing guitar for seven people in a bar in Virginia to playing in Carnegie Hall.
New companies, new jobs
Speaking from a well-lit, lifted stage, Cronin detailed how area economic development efforts emerged strong even during 2020’s trials and tribulations.
This included welcoming $104 million in new capital investment and 15 new company projects adding more than 1,400 direct jobs.
In fact, Cronin said these figures yielded the private, nonprofit organization’s “best year so far, for investment and job creation in Pasco County.”
The Pasco EDC’s ongoing efforts required creativity and adaptations to get work done, given various limitations brought about by COVID-19, Cronin explained from the luminated dais.
“The pandemic pushed us all to find new methods to manage old routines,” he said.
“Economic development was no different, and I’m proud to say that our team at the Pasco EDC rose to the challenge and found innovative ways to bring new investment and new jobs to the county.
“Like so many other businesses, we turned to virtual platforms to accomplish things that we could no longer do in person. We hosted site visits, business workshops and special events, all virtually.”
Cronin highlighted other economic-related marks from the past year, including the opening of Pasco EDC’s third small business incubator location — SMARTstart Grove Entrepreneur Center in Wesley Chapel — designed to help entrepreneurs expand their business and turn ideas into realities.
Interestingly enough, desserts prepared for the event were concocted by a trio of SMARTstart restaurant entrepreneur members and alums — Lanky Lassie’s Shortbread in Dade City; Sweet Luminous Bakery in Dade City; and, Hillbilly Farms in Dade City.
Cronin also mentioned how the Pasco EDC partnered with Pasco County government to provide emergency relief to more than 1,200 small businesses struggling to meet the demands the pandemic placed on them.
“Despite the challenges that 2020 presented,” Cronin said, “we kept moving forward.”
Tourism on the rebound?
Likewise speaking to the sizable crowd, Thomas acknowledged Pasco’s tourism “took a hit” from the pandemic, and remains in recovery mode.
However, the county’s tourism brand leader presented a mostly upbeat outlook for 2021 — noting visitor numbers steadily increasing the second half of this year and beyond.
“After a year of strict restrictions, people are itching to get back on the road and back in the air,” said Thomas, also quick to point out tourism industry analysts reporting that nearly 80% of Americans are dreaming of or planning to travel this year.
Thomas added the CDC’s recent guidance indicating vaccinated individuals can now safely travel without risking their health brings “another encouraging sign from our tourism industry for the second half of this year.”
Though the pandemic put a dent into some of Pasco’s original grandiose tourism plans and projections for most of 2020, there were some wins from the prior year.
Among other entertainment venues, shopping and hotels coming online, Thomas in particular highlighted the opening of the Sarah Vande Berg Tennis and Wellness Center in Zephyrhills; AdventHealth Sports Arena at Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus of Pasco County, in Wesley Chapel; and Widow Fletcher’s, a new waterfront restaurant in New Port Richey.
Thomas told the audience how FSC remained aggressive following the pandemic’s initial scare.
It was one of the first tourism agencies in the state to return to marketing after what Thomas labeled “a two-month industry blackout.”
The group ran an outdoor adventure-focused marketing digital campaign promoting the county’s 10-day summer scallop season along the Anclote River.
The campaign resulted in visitation growth of more than 60% and related economic impact, Thomas said.
Pasco, too, was one of Florida’s first to return to hosting sporting events amid the pandemic, Thomas said, with the TORHS 2Hot4Ice roller hockey national championships in July.
The event — with strict pandemic protocols in place — brought together 113 teams who played a staggered schedule over 10 days at AdventHealth Center Ice.
Thomas presented other encouraging tourism-related figures.
More than 25% of county visitors last year were first-timers who plan to return, he said.
Visitor spending was down compared to fiscal year 2019, but tourists still created more than a half-million dollars of economic impact to the county, saving every resident over $260 in their annual taxes, he said.
Though the FSC has mainly focused on youth and amateur sports and outdoor recreational offerings to attract visitation, Thomas indicated the agency next plans to branch into the business meeting marketplace.
The county in October will play host to the inaugural SMERF (Social, Military, Educational, Religious and Fraternal) Express conference — an overnight tourism-based trade show featuring social functions, community service, team building and one-on-one appointments between meeting planners and destination marketing organizations.
And, in January there will be a similar but sports-tourism focused conference called Sports Express-Indoor.
Thomas also discussed how FSC is building on in-state tourism drive markets of Orlando, Miami and Jacksonville, along with out-of-state drive markets of Atlanta and Raleigh-Durham.
The agency also is launching new promotions geared toward people in the New York, New Jersey and the Great Lakes region.
“When they’re ready to travel,” Thomas said, “we’re ready to welcome them.”
The speaker also touted the reach and impact of FSC, which has increased its staffing levels and has received national recognition in the tourism industry for its various campaigns and efforts.
Thomas said: “We focus on telling our community story — the experiences that make Pasco County the best destination in Florida, and the place we all love to call home, whether we’re fishing in the gulf, skydiving in Zephyrhills, or hiking in our nature parks, or playing hockey right here at AdventHealth Center Ice.”
Published June 02, 2021