Official retracts opinion on Pasco sports complex

Late Tuesday, as the Pasco commission meeting wound down, Chairman Jack Mariano created a stir when he spoke about an e-mail he received a day earlier.

A top state sports official had reviewed Pasco's proposed sports complex and come to the same conclusion as Mariano: Hiring Sportsplex USA, a private California-based company, to help build and run the project was a bad idea.

"I'm sorry that I can't endorse this project, but I feel the County would be much better off doing this project in-house," Larry Pendleton, president of Florida Sports Foundation, had written Mariano in the e-mail.

But by the time Mariano invoked that e-mail to commissioners, Pendleton had already retreated from his earlier criticism.

Around 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Pendleton sent a second e-mail, this one to tourism manager Eric Keaton, with whom he had spoken by phone earlier that morning. Pendleton had not realized the severe budget constraints facing the county's parks and recreation department, which cut 37 positions and closed swimming pools this year, according to Keaton.

"Based on our conversations this morning, my opinions and recommendations could change based on your (County) abilities to fund yearly operating costs and maintenance," Pendleton wrote.

He added: "Hope this clears up any misunderstandings that I may have created."

As of Wednesday afternoon, Mariano had not seen that second e-mail, and said that, if he had, he would have mentioned it during Tuesday's meeting. But he said he didn't regret raising the issue.

"The point remains the same," he said.

Mariano has publicly floated the idea of using local leagues to run and organize the tournaments that draw the out-of-county teams that would stay in local hotels and shop and eat at local businesses.

The county's plan is to use tourist tax dollars to build the facility; commissioners hired Sportsplex in August to help with the site selection and the design and construction. Who would operate the facility is up for debate, but in California, Sportsplex has operated a facility it helped build for the city of Poway for more than 15 years. The idea is that someone other than Pasco, which has money only to build parks, not operate them, would run the one here as well.

Mariano working on Engle Park complex

But in an interview on Wednesday, Mariano for the first time said that he has been working closely with a new association of Hudson sports leagues to build eight new fields and two restaurants — a project similar in concept to what Sportsplex has proposed — at Engle Park, which is in his district.

Ever since this summer, he has been meeting with the Hudson Sports Association, a newly formed group of about eight residents representing all the different Hudson sport groups.

Mariano said he and the group have been trying to figure out a way to expand facilities at Engle ever since the county got additional land in 2008. But the Sportsplex project got them moving.

He said he wants a scaled down version of Sportsplex built at the existing Engle site, possibly with tourist tax dollars. And he thinks the local association could run and organize the tournaments.

He said he has local restaurateurs interested in the concept, though he declined to name them. He said a volunteer architect had drawn up some rough plans for the new fields.

Mariano's out-of-the-chambers planning could give ammunition to critics who say he just wants the project in his district.

Sportsplex USA officials told commissioners at a meeting this summer that the best construction sites are near major highways and near population centers, characteristics that would rule out Engle Park.

Commissioner Michael Cox, who criticized Mariano for making what he believed were insulting remarks about Sportsplex, said Wednesday that he thinks Mariano is raising questions about the company because he has one objective.

"I'm convinced the bottom line is that he wants it in Hudson," said Cox, "and he wants it in Engle Park."

Mariano said he's drawing a distinction between the plans that the commission has discussed with Sportsplex and the project that he would like to see more forward at Engle Park.

"Let me be loud and clear," he said. "I don't want Sportsplex to go to Hudson. . . . Let it (Sportsplex) go elsewhere, if they decide to build it."

But he does want some version of Sportsplex, and it would compete for tourist tax dollars for its construction. "If you look at expanding your park, it's going to cost less money," he said.

So why has he not mentioned this to his colleagues during their meetings?

"How many times have you heard me ask for a workshop on this?" he said.

Two public hearings, which will feature representatives of Sportsplex, are coming up next week.

"I don't know if that's the right forum," he said.

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

Official retracts opinion on Pasco sports complex 11/04/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 4, 2009 9:06pm]

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