|By Lisa Buie, St. Petersburg Times,
Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 25, 2009--PORT RICHEY -- Karen King showed off the gleaming new Homewood Suites: spacious bedrooms equipped with pullout sofas, kitchens with granite countertops, and a pool area with a waterfall curtain that creates tranquil white noise as guests relax on chaise lounges.
Oh, and there's also a putting green.
"You wouldn't think something like this would be in Port Richey," she said as she showed off the covered patio. Ceiling fans turned, creating a pleasant breeze.
King is the director of sales at the Hilton brand hotel, one of three hotels that recently appeared on U.S. 19. A few blocks south, Holiday Inn Express and Suites opened about two years ago. Across the street, a Hampton Inn, also a Hilton property, is under construction. That will bring the total along the corridor to 13.
Figures from the county's Tourist Development Office show Pasco with 2,686 hotel rooms countywide. The lion's share, 800, are at Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel. The next largest is Ramada Inn and Bayside Resort in New Port Richey, with 127 rooms.
King's aside about the upscale new hotels has raised questions in the minds of those who live in west Pasco and travel the not-so-scenic, sign-clogged U.S. 19 corridor. Is the area on the verge of getting a theme park or casino?
"I get asked that constantly," said County Commissioner Michael Cox, who assures constituents that neither a Six Flags nor a Hard Rock Casino is on the horizon, rumors that the Pasco Times also recently debunked.
"I have my own theory," he said last week. "There may be more eco-tourism than we realize."
Hotel representatives say that's not so much the case, as most of those would rather sleep under the stars than in a hotel bed.
"A lot are campers," said Gail Cushman, director of sales for the Days Inn and Suites on U.S. 19.
Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park still has limited access, said park manager Toby Brewer, though he expects that to change as construction begins on a main entrance.
"Most of what we get now are locals," he said.
Actually, representatives at area hotels say there's far more travel overall than those who live here know about.
"We're getting so many calls it's unbelievable," said King, whose hotel has been open since May 7.
She rattled off events that draw visitors: the recent state high school weightlifting championships at River Ridge High School, a field hockey tournament, and an upcoming roller skating competition. Pasco hotels also get business from bowling tournaments played in Spring Hill.
And if the county ends up building a multisport complex at the favored Starkey Ranch site, demand will only rise.
"We're only about a 20-minute drive," King said.
A lot goes into deciding to where to build a hotel, said Scott Brush, a Miami-based consultant who does feasibility studies for the hospitality industry. The decision is typically made and financing secured 18 months to two years before the first bricks are laid.
So it's no real surprise that three hotels are going up in an area that two years ago was at the epicenter of the housing boom.
The recession has no effect on the building, as "once you start a hotel, there's not much else you can do," Brush said. "This was not something people planned for two years ago."
However, U.S. 19 does fairly well, he said. "Growth was moving north. Older hotels to the south are becoming less and less desirable."
But believe it or not, business travel is what really fills up rooms. Pasco County is no home to big business, but chain stores need places to house their corporate executives when they show up to check up on or train the locals. The same goes for west Pasco's three hospitals.
"There's an amazing variety of people who need hotel rooms," Brush said.
He added that more people are having relatives stay at hotels during visits, although that might not be true now in this economic downturn.
"That's an overall long-term trend," he said.
Potential for growth
Are owners of established hotels worried about the newcomers stealing all the business?
Not really, says the Days Inn's Cushman. The 110-room hotel originally opened in the 1980s as the Gulf Coast Inn, then became a Holiday Inn in 1995. A couple of years ago, the owners switched their affiliation to Days Inn after Holiday Inn executives wanted the open-air hotel to be enclosed.
Cushman said their occupancy rate is still 60 to 75 percent, and the diversity of offerings and room rates will appeal to different markets.
"I think with this growth pattern we will be fine," she said. "There are a lot of good things happening in the area."
Eric Keaton, who manages the county's Tourism Development Office, said the recent construction might seem excessive to the casual observer but there's still a huge potential for growth.
"A little more than 2,500 rooms is very small," he said, compared with Hillsborough's 15,000 rooms and Pinellas' 19,000 rooms.
"I know it's hard to believe and a real head-scratcher for some folks," Keaton said, "but people are wanting to come here."
Lisa Buie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4604.
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