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New sports park in county master plan raises questions

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners voted unanimously last year to kill a controversial $40-million Championship Park project promoted by their colleague Jim Norman.

But there's a curious item in the county Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department Master Plan: "Evaluate the feasibility of constructing a large, revenue-generating sports facility."

Parks director Mark Thornton insists this is no Championship Park in disguise. It would likely be something smaller in scale than Norman's initial vision of a multisport megacomplex that would be host to regional, state and national amateur sports tournaments.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said Norman asked her about a month ago about using city land near Thonotosassa for a revenue-generating park. The city owns 400 acres there, and already has agreed to sell 75 acres to the county for wetlands mitigation.

But Iorio said she has publicly committed the rest of the land to Tampa Bay Water for its long-range plans, so the regional water supplier has first claim on it.

"I welcomed him to talk further with my staff about it," she said. City and county park officials are scheduled to meet next week.

The revenue-generating park is just one idea contained in the 112-page report aimed at bringing in new money to build and run parks. They range from selling naming rights to fields to charging fees for some activities that are free now.

Any idea to bring in revenue is up for discussion given the current climate of property tax cuts forced by voters. And studies of the Championship Park plan said the concept was a good one.

Norman, the longest serving member of the County Commission, insists he's not behind the master plan item. But he confirmed his conversation with Iorio.

He says he's not working counter to the commission rejection in October. This is different, a partnership proposal with the city.

"The city is in the same crisis as we are in terms of running parks," Norman said. "We have millions and millions of park assets that have no money for maintenance."

He said a tournament park would bring in money to pay for that maintenance, and said the people who weighed in on the master plan came to the same conclusion.

Norman unveiled a proposal in July 2005 to build an amateur sports megaplex on 425-acres of county-owned land near Plant City. His initial concept called for a 22,000-seat stadium and dozens of soccer and baseball fields.

Consultants hired by the county ultimately found that the complex, without a stadium, could make money. And Norman said that money would help pay for upkeep at other county parks.

Commissioner Rose Ferlita said she doesn't think the idea will fly at a time voters have said they want government to focus on the basics.

"This is a revival of Championship Park," Ferlita said. "I don't think it should be resurrected. I think we should hold tight and make do with the revenues we have."

The master plan is scheduled to go to a parks advisory board later this month for further comment. Then it will go to commissioners for a formal presentation, possibly in early June.

Times staff writers Janet Zink and Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

New sports park in county master plan raises questions 05/06/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 12, 2008 9:30am]

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