We live in interesting times.
After stuffing the Atlanta Braves' attempt to pick our pockets for a spring training stadium, the Collier County commissioners turned around and committed $60-80 million to build an amateur sports complex.
What's the rationale? Local youth can use it whenever state or national sports tournaments aren't occupying the space. And that wouldn't be very often, because out-of-towners are going to flock here, bringing their soccer, lacrosse, field hockey, tennis, softball and who-knows-what-other teams to compete, overrun our hotels and flood our restaurants, spreading money in their wake.
We are told the project will strengthen the tourism leg of our economic stool (construction and agriculture being the other two legs). It will be pickleball times ten. Or fifteen.
A county-funded consulting firm earned its money by forecasting the sports complex would bring in 265,000 people a year.
To make this happen, the commissioners did what for years was unthinkable. They raised the tourist tax from 4% to 5%. The big resort hotels that fought the increase for years were overwhelmed by smaller inland hotels, trade associations, sports lobbyists and a multitude of hard-breathing fathers pleading for more playing fields for their kids.
It was a full-court press, and it was well orchestrated. County officials assured the cautious that the $3.8 million allocated for the sports complex wouldn't take money away from the beaches. The officials went so far as to guarantee that any shortfall in bond debt service would be covered by the county's general fund -- that is, the taxpayer's dime. No way we would default or strip money from the beaches, even in an economic downturn. All contingencies are covered.
Never mind that $3.8 million underwrites bonds for only a $55 million project. (What happened to $60-80 million?) We simply won't build an indoor arena if we run out of money. But let's not over-think this. Let's get the show on the road. Start negotiations to buy the land. What could possibly go wrong?
What could go wrong is that the hordes won't show up. The notion that "if we build it, they will come" is a triumph of hope over reason. There are sports complexes all over Florida and more being built. They will all compete for the same state and national tournaments, and the competition will be fierce.
Ah, but what about the draw of beautiful Naples, with its culture and beaches and fine restaurants? Won't that tip the scales?
No, that will have no bearing whatsoever. Competing communities can offer the same fast-food restaurants (forget about fine dining), nearby hotels and motels and, in coastal communities, the same beaches. There won't be much beach-going anyway, because the sports fields will be too far away -- at Collier Boulevard and I-75. And I can't see bus-loads of kids doing much shopping on 5th Avenue or 3rd Street or visiting Naples Botanical Gardens.
But the project looks like a done deal. And why not? The commissioners have political cover. Since the facility won't open until 2021, most people will have forgotten by then who approved this fiscal boondoggle.
Are there any upsides? Any good news in all of this? Maybe. To make everyone happy with the bed tax increase, the county proposed more money for the beaches, upping the allocation to 42.6% (of the 5% tax). If approved, that would provide an additional $2.5 million a year for beach spending.
When added to funds from catastrophic reserves, FDEM reserve reimbursement, and Fund 183 and 195 money, that would be enough, according to Gary McAlpin, head of Coastal Zone Management, to carry out a major resiliency program -- starting with a $38 million project in 2020 to deepen and widen beaches throughout Collier County.
But let's face it. A lot of things could happen, and not all of them good, between now and then. A destructive coastal storm, a fall-off in tourist funds, an unexpected call on county reserves. Big plans today -- for ball fields and beaches -- could end up as projects built on sand.