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Deadline looms as county considers shelving sports complex project

NEW PORT RICHEY — The plan to build a sports complex in Trinity appears headed for a tailspin, with the proposed management company threatening to walk away and a majority of commissioners wanting to shelve the proposal until the fall.

Commissioners took no vote Tuesday, but essentially began running a weeklong clock before they decide whether to put the project on ice.

The latest developments come less than a month after commissioners scrapped the original site, amid complaints from Heritage Springs residents, and drew up a new list of three potential sites in the Trinity/Odessa area. Those sites are the 30-acre Mitchell property just east of a hospital under construction on State Road 54; 25 acres off Community Drive, near the Trinity Memorial Gardens cemetery; and a 40-acre site at Starkey Ranch.

The owners of those three properties are supposed to get back to County Administrator John Gallagher with their cost estimates and proposals by June 1 — a deadline that now looks overly optimistic, according to Gallagher.

But Sportsplex USA, the California consultant and potential management company for the proposed complex, sent county officials a letter last week, saying only two of those sites — the hospital and cemetery properties — are financially feasible. And Sportsplex USA's patience is wearing thin.

"We have left other opportunities dangling as we wait to see what unfolds in Pasco County," said company president Bill Berghoff. "We are happy to wait until June to see what transpires. After that, we will need to explore other opportunities if the Pasco County project doesn't proceed into the design phase."

Commissioner Ted Schrader said Tuesday that county staff is getting consumed by the constantly evolving issues at the time it is putting together a budget that will require millions of dollars in cuts. He cited Sportsplex USA's letter as well as a host of other new issues, including possible site changes for a second project — a multievent center in Wesley Chapel that could host lacrosse tournaments and professional soccer exhibition games.

He said he wants to put the Trinity and Wesley Chapel projects on hold until budget season is over. And then, he said, the county can start from the beginning — with or without Sportsplex USA.

"I just think it's in everyone's best interest to stop this dialogue … and start anew at some (later) point," he said.

His idea got thumbs-up from commissioners Ann Hildebrand, Pat Mulieri and Jack Mariano.

"It has really turned into a donnybrook. It's taken a lot of energy, a lot of horsepower," Hildebrand said. "Do we take a deep breath and regroup? I kind of think that's a good idea."

Commissioner Michael Cox, who has championed the sports complex, first tried to convince the commissioners that most of the controversy would go away if they would take the cemetery site — the location that Heritage Springs residents have taken up arms against — off the list.

No one bit.

Then he reiterated what county purchasing director Scott Stromer told the board: Pulling two projects like that would make it even harder to get a private partner in the future. "What kind of message is that going to send?" Cox said.

No one bit on that one, either.

Then Cox got visibly agitated. "If you want to scrap it, scrap it," he said, adding he'd make a motion to repeal the tourist tax all together.

The softball complex in Trinity would play host to tournaments for out-of-town teams and relieve the pressure on other sports fields. Sportsplex USA would make most of its money off a restaurant and give the county a share — 7 percent — of that revenue.

The project was going to be funded with tourist tax revenue, the first major project funded by the so-called "bed tax" on motels since Pasco began collecting it 18 years ago. The revenue must go toward projects and events designed to draw more visitors and their dollars to Pasco County.

As commissioners sought to spread some of that revenue to other projects, such as the multiuse events center near Saddlebrook Resort, they voted to finance the softball complex with a mix of tourist tax dollars, park impact fees and bond revenue.

Commissioners decided to see what — if anything — the owners of the Trinity/Odessa sites got back to Gallagher by June 1.

"The sympathy I have for the owners is that they've spent time and money" on the proposals, said Gallagher, who is still working on an operating agreement with Sportsplex USA.

Schrader said he doesn't think this is the county's only shot at finding private partners to run the facilities.

"Maybe there's some other folks out there if we have our act together," he said.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Deadline looms as county considers shelving sports complex project 05/25/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 9:46pm]
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