Sunday, June 17, 2018
News Roundup

Pasco approves deal for sports complex at Wiregrass

DADE CITY — It's on.

After months of haggling over details, Pasco County commissioners approved an agreement Wednesday with the Porter family that both groups hope will culminate with the construction of a 20-field regional sports park.

"Pasco County just got the goose that laid the golden egg," said J.D. Porter, manager for the ranching family behind the massive Wiregrass Ranch development that also includes an outdoor mall, an 83-bed hospital and a satellite campus for Pasco-Hernando Community College.

Under the agreement, approved by a 4-1 vote with Commissioner Jack Marino dissenting, the family will donate 200 acres for the complex, which would have eight baseball and softball fields and a dozen multipurpose fields for soccer or lacrosse.

In return, the county will spend up to $14 million in tourism tax money collected from hotel stays to develop the park. It also will have to find a firm to operate it.

"There's been some give and take on both sides, and we have an agreement the county can live with," county Administrator John Gallagher said.

If the county is unable to find an operator for a sports park within two years, the agreement allows it to use the land for a public park. The county also has naming rights, with the requirement that any name must include the words Pasco and Wiregrass.

"You've got the flexibility to test the water to see if it's something that works out fine for you," Gallagher said. "If it does, you can go forward, and if it doesn't, you will have the property as a district park."

Chairwoman Ann Hildebrand liked that.

"I think of this as a courtship," she said.

Porter called the deal "the biggest leap of faith my family has ever taken."

"We're basically giving them the land and saying do what you want with it," he said.

The deal, finalized late Wednesday, has not always been smooth sailing since efforts began in April. The Porter family originally agreed to operate the park, but that broke down during negotiations over an operations and maintenance agreement. Among the hang-ups: the county asked for 8 percent of the profits, but the Porters thought that was too greedy.

Talks were on a low boil for months but burst into the open last month when Porter attorney Bill Merrill told an assistant county attorney that the county might have to find a new company to run the park if stuck to its version of the operation agreement.

But in the end, the hurdles were overcome, with the Porters essentially donating the land and $1 million worth of fill dirt.

However, commissioners haggled over the dirt on Wednesday, with both sides agreeing to add in the word "clean." Porter assured commissioners the dirt was of sufficient quality for playing fields.

"This is the same dirt that has been used with the hospital and the Shops at Wiregrass," Merrill said.

The groups also had to resolve some differences over how to mitigate damage to wetlands, with the county agreeing to do it on the site with ponds instead of requiring the Porters to do it on other parcels.

"It's been a long road," Commissioner Ted Schrader said. "I'm confident the Porters are committed to Wiregrass and the Wesley Chapel community in realizing the true benefits of a facility such as this."

Mariano criticized the deal, saying the county had conceded too much and should look at expanding the Wesley Chapel district park on Boyette Road.

"Things are being pulled away," he said. "We're taking step backward after step backward."

Schrader accused Mariano of trying to kill the deal.

"You've been trying to scuttle this the whole time," he said.

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