With record tourist tax revenues, Seminole County looks at expanding sports facilities

With Seminole on pace for another record year in tourist tax revenues, county officials are looking at building a large venue for indoor events near the Boombah Sports Complex and adding more soccer fields at Sylvan Lake Park.

“I think Seminole County has really found our niche with sports tourism. … It’s kind of become our little brand,” Commission Chair Amy Lockhart said Tuesday during a county tourism presentation.

Even though Seminole County does not come close to being considered a worldwide tourist destination like neighboring Orange County, with its large theme parks and glitzy attractions, the county did collect a record $6.4 million in tourist tax revenues last fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. That’s nearly a 45% jump from the previous fiscal year.

Seminole also is on pace to pull in another record $7 million in tourist tax collections this fiscal year. Last year, the county saw an occupancy rate of just over 72% for its 43 hotels and 5,135 hotel rooms countywide.

Seminole’s tourist development tax is 5 cents on every dollar tacked on to a hotel room bill, in addition to the state sales tax of 7%. Funds are used to advertise and promote tourism within the county and build and maintain new facilities that draw in visitors.

And over the past decade, Seminole has attracted scores of sporting events that bring in thousands of players, coaches and families from around the country to its outdoor facilities, including the Boombah Sports Complex off East Lake Mary Boulevard near the Orlando Sanford International Airport.

Still, the average daily rate for a hotel room in Seminole last year was about $108, far below Orange and Volusia, which both average about $158 a night, according to county data.

At Tuesday’s commission work session, county staff and consultants pitched a plan to create a so-called tourism improvement district, or TID, in which hotels with more than 53 rooms would be charged a $3 assessment fee per available room. Such an assessment would generate an estimated $5.62 million in the first year, documents show.

The revenue would pay for the development, capital improvements and maintenance of sports facilities. No other Florida county uses such an assessment.

Those TID funds could pay for the construction and operation of a $61-million indoor venue adjacent to the Boombah complex. Preliminary plans show the facility — at a minimum of 139,000 square feet and with 900 seats — could host basketball, martial arts, volleyball, cheerleading and other indoor sporting events.

The indoor venue is projected to offer 32 events and lead to 17,149 hotel room night stays within the first year, county officials said. By the fifth year, the venue would host 60 events and lead to a projected 29,238 hotel room night stays, according to county projections.

Commissioner Jay Zembower said he supports establishing a TID and building a new indoor facility. However, such a facility should be much larger than plans show and have about 5,000 seats to accommodate other events besides sports, he said.

“I think this will serve not only Seminole State College, but also our high schools to do their graduations and other ceremonies,” Zembower said. “Emergency management could use this facility during hurricanes for sheltering individuals in our county, which we know we struggle with to a certain extent.”

Commissioner Andria Herr said she supports the plan of an indoor complex for large events. But she does not want Seminole residents and businesses to fund it. She called the TID a “fantastic funding mechanism” for the project.

“I think it’s critical that this be self-sustaining, and that the local community is not going to be paying for this,” Herr said.

Erik Ducharme, a member of Seminole’s tourist development council, and director of sales for TopGolf Lake Mary, said businesses see a “significant increase in revenues” during large sports competitions at county facilities.

“Not doing this project would be a detriment to business,” Ducharme said in support of the indoor complex.

County officials also pitched adding seven soccer fields to the Sylvan Lake Park complex off Lake Markham Road. For the past three decades, Seminole has owned and maintained six soccer fields at the facility, two of which are used exclusively by the Orlando Pride professional team. The remaining four fields are fully booked every weekend by youth soccer leagues.

“We have a shortage of field space for our residents,” said Rick Durr, Seminole’s director of leisure services.

To make space for the extra fields, Seminole officials pitched the county buying the adjacent, privately owned WB Equestrian property of roughly 40 acres to add the fields using the TID funds. Seminole recently ordered an appraisal of that horse farm property.

But Herr said adding that many more soccer fields would negatively impact the surrounding narrow roads and neighborhoods near Lake Markham Road and South Sylvan Lake Drive.

“I really struggle with the Sylvan Lake Park expansion because I don’t think we have the infrastructure around it to support it,” she said.

Tuesday’s meeting was a work session, and county commissioners told county staff to bring back more information to future meetings.

mcomas@orlandosentinel.com