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Pasco dreams of parks, but takes no action for now

NEW PORT RICHEY — Even as Pasco's park system grapples with historic budget cuts, county commissioners went window shopping Tuesday for some whiz-bang future parks that would be operated by private companies and attract flocks of tourists.

And, while their conversation revealed optimism that bad economic times won't last forever, they didn't decide to buy anything.

"There really wasn't a productive decision to bring some finality to a tourist destination," said commissioner Ted Schrader.

The parks budget has taken a 30 percent cut since 2007 and this year the last two county swimming pools are on the chopping block. But commissioners still want to add new parks and help draw tourists through sports tournaments.

The solution: A public-private partnership where the county would offer up land and taxes to build the park while a private entity operates it.

Now, commissioners have to decide what's next after deals fell through in the past several years on a proposed tennis stadium and a multi-field project operated by the California company Sportsplex.

"We're kind of to the point where we have to decide, where do we want to move forward?" assistant county administrator Michele Baker said.

Commissioners heard details on four sites Tuesday. All would be built using various amounts of public land and tax money. To construct the parks, the county can draw on $11.4 million in tourist money, $7.5 million in sales tax bond money and $21 million in impact fees.

But the county is hurting for money to maintain and operate its current parks — much less any new ones. That would come from an independent partner.

"We just have to be realistic," commissioner Pat Mulieri said. "There isn't money to be able to run these facilities."

The sites and ideas include:

• A "cable park" located on a lake at the Sunwest mine site in Aripeka. Two electric cables would pull wakeboarders through a series of obstacles. It would be complemented by a future deepwater channel to the gulf, a beach and a potential boardwalk-style shopping area.

• An 80-acre park on Starkey Ranch near Odessa with soccer fields, baseball fields, a skate park and cycling track. It would also include a cable park on a lake for water skiing. Half of the park would be owned by the county and subsidized by fees from the other half.

The public park area would "provide the foot traffic and exposure" for the private area, said former commissioner Michael Cox, who represented the Starkey family. When he was on the board last year, Cox was the biggest champion of the Sports­plex project.

• A smaller passive park in Trinity that would be built with $1 million in impact fees. Developers have pledged $60,000 over three years for operations, though park officials say that wouldn't cover costs. A deal to pay for the park by renting eight clay tennis courts fell through this week.

• A 160-acre park in Wesley Chapel's Wiregrass area. The county would own 40 acres of the park, and the rest would be privately owned with some level of public access. J.D. Porter, whose family controls the development, said it was a legacy project that could attract dozens of tournaments per year in a variety of sports and drive tourists to Pasco County.

Can the county build them all?

"I don't think so," commissioner Jack Mariano said. "But it's good to have these things in front of us, so we can have more discussions."

But commissioners did agree on some general principals. They said private partners should be able to pony up at least 10 percent of the projects, to ensure they have a stake in seeing the projects succeed. An operator would also have to commit to at least a five-year agreement.

"I'm trying to determine how much risk the board wants to take," county administrator John Gallagher said. "To me, that's the big sticking point. If the business model doesn't work out, then what do we do?"

Pasco dreams of parks, but takes no action for now 06/28/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 28, 2011 8:08pm]
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