NEW PORT RICHEY — Hoping to keep a national lacrosse tournament and attract other sporting events, Pasco County commissioners approved a $2 million expansion of the Wesley Chapel District Park.
The money would come from the tourism tax fund, which is now about $11.8 million. The 2 percent tax is levied on hotel stays and other short-term rentals.
"We've been talking and talking and talking," Commissioner Pat Mulieri said of the tax kitty, which has accumulated since 1991. "It's time for the county to step up to the plate."
The county has spent recent years working to lure industry, such as T. Rowe Price and Raymond James, which have announced expansion plans in Pasco. But the county has dithered on building a tourism brand. Deals to build a tennis stadium in Wesley Chapel and a sportsplex in Odessa both fell through.
Commissioners now are working to spend the tourism money to develop facilities to attract the lucrative youth sports market.
Commissioners voted 4-1 to dip into the money to add two multipurpose turf fields and a parking lot at the park off Boyette Road. Commissioner Jack Mariano cast the lone "no" vote, saying the county should opt for less expensive grass fields and build six now.
"If you're going to do it, do it right," he said.
County tourism director Eric Keaton said the county needs the extra fields before December 2014 to honor an agreement with KSE Lacrosse LLC, the company behind Dick's Sporting Goods Tournament of Champions. The four-year deal requires the county to accommodate the tournament's growth.
Virtually all the tourism money had been set aside for the Fields at Wiregrass, a proposed 160-acre park to be built on land donated by the cattle ranching Porter family. But the deal is still being finalized, prompting the county to seek the expansion at the Boyette Road park.
The Porters had originally offered to build and manage the Wiregrass park, but that deal fell through amid disputes over revenue sharing. The county asked for 8 percent of the profits, but the Porters said that was too greedy. In the end, the Porters agreed to simply donate the land and some fill dirt.
Then, several months later, they submitted a bid to build and run the county-owned park through a partnership with two other companies at a cost of $14 million. County officials rejected the Porter bid and approved a competing proposal from Tampa-based Blue Marble Strategic. Blue Marble said it would need only $8.5 million to build the park, leaving enough to also expand the fields at Wesley Chapel District Park. Blue Marble's proposal called mainly for baseball and softball fields at the Wiregrass complex, so the county still needed fields elsewhere for the lacrosse tournament.
Commissioners were set to vote on the Boyette park issue two weeks ago but postponed it so that the Wiregrass donation could be finalized.
However, that agreement, which was supposed to be presented to commissioners and closed on Tuesday, was still being negotiated and has been postponed until the April 30 meeting.
Commissioners also asked Keaton to reach out to the Tampa Bay Sports Commission to help market the new fields. In recent years, the county has come up against competition from other nearby counties, including Polk and Manatee, which have built facilities aimed at grabbing a piece of the youth sports pie.
Keaton said he will immediately work with the purchasing department to seek bids for the park expansion. He said the department's business plan also calls for an additional staffer to manage all the sporting events that have come to the county over the past few years. He'll ask for that later.
"But that's not part of this agenda item," he said.