Lawsuit threatens annual Florida Classic Clusters dog show in Hernando

Dogs and their handlers in the junior division prepare to compete in the handling competition during the 2008 Florida Classic Clusters Winter Dog Show in Brooksville. The Florida Classic Clusters is the largest AKC-sanctioned dog show in the state.

Times (2008)

Dogs and their handlers in the junior division prepare to compete in the handling competition during the 2008 Florida Classic Clusters Winter Dog Show in Brooksville. The Florida Classic Clusters is the largest AKC-sanctioned dog show in the state.

BROOKSVILLE — For the past 14 years, Hernando County has played host to what is considered the largest accredited dog show in Florida.

Every January, more than 2,000 dogs representing more than 110 breeds arrive with their owners at Florida Classic Park for the two-week event, which helps fill the coffers of area businesses.

However, the future of the Florida Classic Clusters Winter Dog Show is in doubt because of a brewing legal rift between the principals of the four shareholder kennel clubs that own and operate the facility on Lockhart Road, east of Brooksville.

A lawsuit filed in Hernando County by the Inverness Florida Kennel Club has continued to drag on for more than a year. The suit alleges that officers of Florida Classic Park Inc. misappropriated money raised from events, withheld profits and failed to maintain detailed financial records for three years. The plaintiffs are seeking an accounting of the money.

The ongoing legal battle means the 2013 Florida Classic Clusters, scheduled to be held Jan. 10 to 14 and Jan. 16 to 20, likely will not be held at the Hernando facility, its home since 1999.

Hernando County tourism coordinator Tammy Heon said losing the show would be a huge blow to area hotels, restaurants and businesses that cater to the largely out-of-town crowd. All told, the event brings an estimated $1.5 million in tourism dollars to the county each year.

"It would be virtually impossible to fill that gap," Heon said. "The show comes at time of the year when businesses, especially in the east county, are really counting on it."

The lawsuit, filed a year ago, names Daniel Stolz and his wife, Mary Manning-Stolz, of Land O'Lakes, as primary co-defendants, along with Florida Classic Park and Florida Classic Clusters LLC, two entities with which the Stolzes are involved.

Since then, the matter has pretty much been in the hands of the opposing sides' attorneys.

Kevin Dixon, an Inverness attorney representing the Inverness Kennel Club, said his clients believe the Stolzes kept a hefty portion of the nearly $99,000 in camping, parking and electric service fees collected during the 2011 event and provided fraudulent financial reconciliations to mask their actions.

According to the lawsuit, the club's contract calls for each of the four sponsor clubs to receive an equal share of the dog show's profits. But that hasn't been the case in recent years, said Suzanne Madeiros, secretary of the Inverness Kennel Club.

The plaintiffs claim that in 2009, the Inverness club received only about $10,000 from a show that grossed more than $150,000. In addition, the suit claims that financial records from 2010 showed a $73,000 discrepancy between bank balances shown on tax returns and those found on bank statements.

Madeiros, whose husband, John Madeiros, serves as the Inverness club's president, declined to talk in detail about the lawsuit. Although the case involves missing money, she said she doesn't believe there was criminal intent by the defendants. That's why the club filed the lawsuit instead of pursuing criminal charges, she said.

The Stolzes have been closely involved with the park and have had a hand in organizing the dog show since its inception. The couple also sit on the executive boards of the Clearwater Kennel Club and Tampa Bay Kennel Club, both of which are, along with the Pasco Florida Kennel Club and the Inverness Kennel Club, equal shareholders in the ownership of Florida Classic Park.

Reached by phone, Mary Manning-Stolz said she preferred not to comment on the pending lawsuit, but confirmed that three of the shareholder clubs are looking to move the 2013 event to the Greater Ocala Dog Club.

"We have no choice if we want to keep the dates we've already scheduled," Manning-Stolz said. "I would hate to have to leave Hernando right now because the area has supported us so well all these years. But we don't know what else to do."

Heon said she doesn't either.

Although she has stayed in contact with Manning-Stolz, she believes there is little the tourism office can do in the matter.

"All we can do is cross our fingers and hope for the best," she said.

Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1435.

Lawsuit threatens annual Florida Classic Clusters dog show in Hernando 09/06/12 [Last modified: Thursday, September 6, 2012 8:02pm]

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