WESLEY CHAPEL — Each December, thousands of young lacrosse players and their parents descend on east Pasco for the Dick's Sporting Goods Tournament of Champions.
This year, they'll see something new: two artificial turf fields. The fields, to be built this spring, are meant to ease overcrowding at the three-day event.
Event organizers say the effort doesn't go far enough.
They don't have a problem with synthetic grass. They say they need more playing fields — and unless they get them, they might move the tournament in 2016 after its contract with Pasco ends.
"I can't say enough good things about Pasco County, but ultimately we need to do what's best for our event," said Josh Gross, president of Denver-based NDP, the event's organizer.
Even with 10 multipurpose fields — and two more on the way — the host Wesley Chapel District Park is struggling to keep up with the burgeoning event. This past tournament saw 89 teams from 20 states and two Canadian provinces, in all about 2,000 players. Organizers expect 30 percent more — 117 teams — at this year's match.
Gross said the two new fields will help, but they won't be enough looking to 2015 and beyond when the tournament will need at least 18 fields. For this tournament, he said, they'll have 16 fields — including the two artificial fields and four more fields at nearby Wesley Chapel High School.
"I would like to find a way to keep our event in Pasco County indefinitely, but that's going to take more fields," Gross said.
County officials say they have plans to add fields, but that won't happen anytime soon because they don't have the funds to build and maintain more.
All of this rankles Pasco Commission Chairman Jack Mariano, who said the county missed an opportunity last week when commissioners voted to pursue artificial turf over sod fields. Mariano was the lone dissenter.
Artificial turf costs twice as much as natural sod, given costs for drainage and subsurface work. For the same amount, about $900,000, the county could have built four sod fields, he said.
"We completely missed the boat on this project," Mariano said.
Commissioners backed the synthetic fields on the recommendation of Pasco's tourism director, Ed Caum, who argued that artificial turf is cheaper to maintain than sod. While turf requires combing and leveling, it doesn't require the constant watering, fertilization, mowing and patching that sod needs.
"The fields out there get beat to death. They need time to rest," he said.
Caum said the difference could mean tens of thousands of dollars yearly, although he wasn't sure exactly how much the savings would come to.
The annual tournament is one of Pasco's biggest. The county's tourism office pays event organizers $70,000 a year to play in Pasco. In return, the tournament provides an estimated $3.2 million economic lift to restaurants, hotels and retailers.
A related event, the Derek Pieper Memorial Cup, adds another windfall. A qualifier each October, the match draws hundreds of players from across Florida, Alabama and Georgia.
Tom FitzSimons, president of the Wesley Chapel Athletic Association, which lured Dick's to Pasco in 2008, said if that tournament leaves, Derek Pieper might leave too.
Gross questioned the rationale of putting maintenance savings ahead of the Dick's tournament.
"If Pasco County were to ultimately lose an event like ours, then with the investment they made with the artificial turf, would that have been a wise decision?" he said.
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.