WESLEY CHAPEL — The Tampa developer proposing a youth sports complex in Pasco County says he's nearing a deal with private investors to bring millions to the project, but two obstacles are slowing the deal.
James Talton, owner of Blue Marble Strategic, says investors are on board with the proposed baseball complex north of the Shops at Wiregrass, but they want stronger assurances that the county will provide $11 million in Pasco tourism taxes toward construction. They also want ownership of the property to transfer to the investment group so it can eventually be used as leverage for financing.
"The No. 1 reason we are getting rejected is that the county has title to that land and we don't," Talton said last week.
The changes on Talton's wish list have come as a surprise to county officials.
Additionally, officials say Talton was hired in January to bring $23 million in private investment, but now he's proposing a grander plan: a $65 million complex with $54 million in private investment.
The plan as outlined by the county includes nine major league-regulation ball fields, a stadium, and 10 youth-sized fields to be used for tournaments, for private camps and as a lure for baseball scouts.
It has since grown to include on-site dormitories for traveling teams, a parking garage, a players' lounge, a cafeteria, a restaurant and an indoor training facility. Some of the fields will be designed so they can be configured for softball, soccer and lacrosse.
"All he needs to bring is $23 million," senior assistant County Attorney Jane Fagan said. "The commitment was for him to bring $23 million, and now he's talking about a much larger project."
To pitch the concept to investors, Talton has teamed up with retired major-leaguers Gary Sheffield and Fred McGriff, as well as Chuck White, of the IBC Baseball League, which runs youth tournaments.
He was given until mid July to craft a deal with investors but won an extension after telling commissioners that his talks with investors looked promising. That extension expires Oct. 10.
Talton said he's working on securing letters of intent from potential investors, including three private equity firms and a hedge fund, to demonstrate their seriousness. He is expected to consult with county staff before next week's deadline, Fagan said.
In addition to the ownership provision, Talton said he would prefer the county's contract say it "will provide" $11 million in tourism tax funds — instead of it "may provide up to" $11 million.
"It's not that someone doesn't want to do the deal. It's that . . . all the legal stuff is getting in the way," he said. "It's not for a lack of interest in the project."
County commissioners say their interest hasn't waned, but they're frustrated that Talton's investors prefernew contract terms after he received a six-month extension.
"This is the first I've heard of this," Commissioner Henry Wilson said last week.
Commission Chairman Jack Mariano said, "It's disappointing in the sense that this is supposed to be done and now he's throwing these red flags out there."
Commissioners say Talton's request might be too much. By law, the county is barred from selling public land to a private group without an open bidding process occurring.
Additionally, the Porter family donated the property to the county with the provision that it be used for recreational purposes and remain publicly owned. Even if commissioners wanted to hand over the title to Talton's group, Pasco Sports LLC, they're barred from doing so, Fagan said.
"We have to own it . . . and we have made that very clear in the negotiations," she said.
Commissioner Ted Schrader was more blunt: "That's not going to happen. That is a valuable asset that the county is not going to give up."
Though the sides seem at odds, there might be room to still hammer out an agreement.
Talton said investors might be swayed if the contract is changed to a 99-year lease with the county instead of a 45-year lease, as outlined in the proposal now.
Commissioners said they might entertain that change. Plus, they also might be open to more clearly spelling out the county's commitment to provide $11 million for infrastructure, including roads, sewer and water, and utilities.
"I think we're already committed to that, so if that makes his investors more comfortable, then I'm fine with that," Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said.
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Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect the following clarification:
James Talton, owner of Blue Marble Strategic, which is seeking to build a sports complex in Wesley Chapel, and his investors would like some aspects of his proposed contract with Pasco County changed. But Talton said he is not actively seeking changes in the contract. A story in Friday's Pasco Times was unclear on this point.