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Pasco County tourism board makes its pick for sports complex builder

DADE CITY — A centrally located restaurant where patrons could look out and see their loved ones playing ball and a playground for tots were among the possibilities offered by a San Diego company vying to design, build and operate a multisport complex to help the county fulfill its dream of becoming a sports destination.

Sportsplex USA got the nod Wednesday from the county's Tourist Development Council as members voted to recommend the county pay the company $300,000 in consulting fees.

The private company still has to pass muster with county commissioners, who are set to vote on the matter May 27. Half the money would come from tourism development council construction funds and the other from impact fees.

Sportsplex now has the edge in a competition between it and another California company.

The county initially began negotiations with Big League Dreams, which builds parks that are mini replicas of pro baseball stadiums. But talks foundered over costs, and commissioners gave staff the go-ahead to negotiate with runner-up Sportsplex.

"I'm not saying (the deal with Big League Dreams) is kaput," said Eric Keaton, the county's public communications director. "The commission has to vote."

But here's what he said in a memo to the tourism board: "The product offered by Big League Dreams is first-rate and would be a welcome addition to any community; however, the fees and numerous contractual details are simply too great to warrant further consideration."

The replica stadium complex is supposed to offer eye-catching fields for leagues, large tournaments and corporate outings. It would cost roughly $25-million to $35-million to build. The county would use its tourism tax, impact fees on new construction and bonds to pay for it, though some officials have said the total cost could strain Pasco's means.

With property tax revenue declining, Pasco wants a private company to operate the park, using revenue from admission fees and food concessions. Big League Dreams runs nine replica field complexes of various sizes nationally — some built at a cost higher than expected.

A comparison of both companies showed Sportsplex as the less expensive option. For example, Big League Dreams promised the county 6 percent of gross revenues while Sportsplex offered 7 percent, with the possibility of up to 8 percent, depending on profits.

Big League Dreams also wanted a $750,000 consulting fee, more than double the fee charged by Sportsplex. Sportsplex also charges no licensing fee, while Big League Dreams charges $450,000.

Company president Bill Berghoff said Sportsplex can run complexes more efficiently without higher construction costs.

"We run a leaner operation, and we make our money over the life of the contract as opposed to all up front," he said.

A complex in Pasco would include a covered pavilion and could play host to chamber of commerce events, picnics, "whatever the citizenry of Pasco County desires," Berghoff said.

In other business, tourist council members voted 5-3 to give county commissioners their blessing to increase the bed tax by 1 percent to a total of 3 percent. Such a move would put Pasco, which at 2 percent has the lowest tourism tax in the Tampa Bay area, on the same footing as Citrus and Hernando counties but below Hillsborough and Pinellas, which levy 5 percent.

Critics feared that an increased rate during the economic downturn would discourage tourism, which is already down.

"Maybe another time, when business is better would be a better time to do it," said council member Dick Boehning, an executive at Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel. His boss, Tom Dempsey, said this week he couldn't think of "anything dumber to do."

Boehning said the resort has had to drop its rates to attract business and the county should follow the same model.

But supporters doubted it would have any effect.

"When I travel, I don't look at the tax and say I won't go there," said County Commissioner and tourism council chairwoman Pat Mulieri.

Council member Phil Bell Jr. said Pasco's tax should at the very least match Citrus and Hernando.

"I feel like we're more progressive and have more to offer than those counties," he said.

The recommendation will go to the County Commission, which has expressed support for an increase and must take a final vote.

Lisa Buie can be reached at buie@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4604.

Pasco County tourism board makes its pick for sports complex builder 04/22/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 22, 2009 9:02pm]
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