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Hillsborough County to explore ambitious plan for three sports complexes

TAMPA — Add Hillsborough County Commissioner Chairman Ken Hagan to a long list of politicians before him who say investment in sports is a key component of economic growth.

Hagan on Wednesday outlined a vision for building not one but three major sports complexes as a way to draw tourism and economic development by tapping the market in amateur athletic tournament competition.

Unlike similar proposals of the not-so-distant past, Hagan says at least two of the facilities could get built by private investors. The county already has earmarked money for the third, which would be dedicated largely to youth soccer and also could get a hand from the private sector.

"The economic impact of tournament facilities and sports tourism is significant," Hagan told commissioners. "These facilities are revenue generators."

Hagan gave an overview of each proposal Wednesday, with details about the possible activities but much less information about the financing. He emphasized that each project is mostly conceptual for now, and that it's unclear if either of the privately financed ideas will move forward.

But he emphasized to commissioners the sites' potential economic boost: luring visitors who would stay in the county's hotels, eat in its restaurants and play at other tourism centers during down times in competition.

"The return on investment, visitor spending, infuses real dollars and creates more jobs," he said.

Here are the highlights of the three proposals:

• A 16-field outdoor sporting complex in eastern Hillsborough County. It's the latest iteration of an idea brought seven years ago by then-Commissioner Jim Norman. He had proposed a massive facility on county-owned land then known as Cone Ranch in far northeastern Hillsborough. It drew widespread opposition and was scrapped.

Hagan said thinks there is a possibility for a smaller, but still tournament-caliber complex closer to population centers. He said one promising location adjoins the county's Providence West Park in Riverview, where 84 acres of private land is for sale.

In addition to soccer fields, the Providence Road site could hold football, lacrosse, rugby and field hockey competitions. Commissioner Al Higginbotham suggested adding cricket to the mix.

A United Soccer League professional team has expressed interest a small stadium in partnership with the county, Hagan said, though details remain vague.

Commissioners have already set aside $15 million to buy and build parks, and that money could go toward the Riverview site.

• An indoor, multi-use sports complex somewhere near Tampa's West Shore business district. The theory is it would boost hotel use on weekends, which tend to be slower on weekdays. The Westshore Business Alliance and Hillsborough County Hotel and Motel Association have been floating the idea of just such a facility.

Investment manager Bob Gries, a former Arena Football League franchise owner, has expressed a willingness to pay for construction and turn it over to a non-profit or government agency, such as the Tampa Sports Authority, to oversee operations, Hagan said.

The complex could host competitions such as volleyball, basketball, cheerleading, gymnastics and fencing. Commissioner Sandy Murman asked that tennis also get consideration.

Gries could not be reached Wednesday for comment.

Hagan said land in the West Shore district is scarce, though advocates are eyeing land owned by the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority. The site, west of the Veterans Expressway next to Skyway Park, would hinge on the authority being willing to part with the land.

"We're not making any commitments right now for any non-aviation uses of aviation land because we're working on a master [plan]," airport spokeswoman Janet Zink said. "People approach us all the time with interest in using our property."

• Hagan is not revealing the person or groups pitching a third idea – a 22-field baseball and softball complex that could also be used for other competition. But he said the group is talking about privately building a hotel/dormitory and other attractions, such as an arcade and even a water park, in addition to fields.

He said they are looking for the county to possibly contribute land, though it's still not clear who would operate the park. The group, Hagan added, is looking for 200 to 300 acres. His aide, Rich Reidy, said the outfit making the pitch has seemed most interested in county-owned land abutting and buffering the Southeast County Landfill on County Road 672 near Lithia.

Other commissioners generally praised Hagan's initiative in working on each of the proposals.

Commissioner Kevin Beckner asked for clarification on who would be responsible for operating costs, or ensure that taxpayers aren't on the hook for private sporting ventures. He cited the arrangement with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in which county residents pick up millions in operating shortfalls at Raymond James Stadium.

"What we wouldn't want is something that would end up like Raymond James Stadium, where we've had bad deals and things like that and put the taxpayers on the hook," Beckner said.

"No, it will never happen like that again," Hagan said.

He said his goal is to have the private partners bear that responsibility. A unanimous vote by commissioners tasked county staff with working with the private groups to explore the options.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3387.

Hillsborough County to explore ambitious plan for three sports complexes 10/17/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 17, 2012 7:28pm]
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