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County eyes tourism tax money for Wesley Chapel District Park

Steinbrenner High sophomore Ellie Flaig, right, battles Robinson High’s star attacker Claire Rothschild during a faceoff at a high school lacrosse jamboree at Wesley Chapel District Park. The county is looking to add two multipurpose fields to the park using tourism tax dollars

DAVID RICE | Special to the Times (2012)

Steinbrenner High sophomore Ellie Flaig, right, battles Robinson High’s star attacker Claire Rothschild during a faceoff at a high school lacrosse jamboree at Wesley Chapel District Park. The county is looking to add two multipurpose fields to the park using tourism tax dollars

WESLEY CHAPEL — It was described as a courtship when the Porter family agreed to donate 160 acres of its cattle ranch to the county for a sports park to attract tournaments and put heads in hotel beds.

Five months later, as the two parties work to complete a deal, the county wants to spend a chunk of the tourism tax earmarked for the Fields at Wiregrass to expand the district park at Wesley Chapel, a move that caught the suitors off guard.

"Due to delays in negotiating a contract for the construction of the Fields at Wiregrass, the staff has initiated plans to make improvements to Wesley Chapel District Park to include two turf multipurpose fields and an adjacent parking lot," tourism director Eric Keaton wrote in a memo to county commissioners, who are expected to vote on the matter at their meeting Wednesday.

The county needs the extra fields by March 2014 to honor an agreement with KSE Lacrosse LLC, the company behind Dick's Sporting Goods Tournament of Champions. The four-year deal requires the county to accommodate the tournament's growth.

The expected cost, about $2 million, would be taken from the county's $11.7 million tourism tax fund, virtually all of which had been set aside for Wiregrass.

But county officials say that under a deal with Blue Marble Strategic, the Tampa company granted preliminary approval last month to build and manage the park, the costs would total only $8.5 million. That would leave enough to expand the district park.

However, it makes for a touchy political situation with the Porter family.

The Porters originally agreed to manage the park, but that fell through during negotiations over an operations and maintenance agreement. Among the hangups: The county asked for 8 percent of the profits, but the Porters thought that was too greedy.

Afterward, the Porters decided to donate only the land, plus fill dirt.

Then, several months later, they submitted a bid to build and run the county-owned park through a partnership with two other companies at a cost of $14 million.

But commissioners opted instead to open talks with Blue Marble after county staff said the Porter bid failed to conform to the county's specifications. Blue Marble promised to use only about $6 million of county money, and the rest would come from the private sector. The design called mainly for baseball and softball fields rather than lacrosse.

That snub, coupled with the proposal to spend $2 million expanding its own park, could cause the county to get stood up by its suitor in the end, Commission Chairman Ted Schrader said.

"If I were in (the Porters') position I'd probably be having second thoughts about (the land donation)," he said.

Schrader said he was concerned that a district park expansion could violate state law, which requires that tourism taxes be spent to lure visitors from outside the county.

"I'd have to see how we'd be able to segregate the new addition in the park to my satisfaction," Schrader said, calling the proposal "premature."

"It demonstrates that the county isn't negotiating in good faith," he said.

Keaton said his department wants to hire a coordinator who would focus solely on managing outside tournaments, which would get first priority to use the fields built with tourism taxes.

Commissioner Jack Mariano, who initially said tourism money would be best spent adding fields to the Wesley Chapel park, said he has some questions about the proposal. He wondered why artificial turf was necessary and said grass would be more attractive to youth tournaments. He also said the tourism kitty should be split between the east and west sides of the county.

Bill Merrill, the attorney for the Porters, said the family was surprised that they were not informed of the proposal given the fact that they are donating 160 acres to the county.

"This is new news," he said, adding that not putting lacrosse fields at Wiregrass may be a violation of the agreement reached in November.

But he said the talks were going well with the county, with closing expected soon.

"We're going full steam ahead," he said.

County eyes tourism tax money for Wesley Chapel District Park 04/05/13 [Last modified: Friday, April 5, 2013 9:24pm]

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