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Pasco officials put all their chips on Wiregrass sports complex

NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco commissioners made a "leap of faith" Tuesday by pledging almost all of the county's tourism tax money for a multi-field sports complex in Wesley Chapel's Wiregrass development.

By setting aside $14 million in hotel taxes for the project, commissioners left only about $185,000 in an account that has been untouched since 1991. If the complex is finished, it would break a decade-long string of failed attempts to use that cash to build a tourism destination. Previous ideas, such as a tennis stadium near Saddlebrook or a Sportsplex softball facility near Odessa, never came to fruition.

"It's time to get off the dime," said longtime Commissioner Ann Hildebrand.

The money will go toward the 200-acre Fields at Wiregrass, which will have eight baseball and softball fields and a dozen multipurpose fields for soccer or lacrosse.

"If we're ever going to be that marquee county in the Tampa Bay region and hopefully in the state of Florida," said Commissioner Ted Schrader, "we need to have a facility that people can recognize and hopefully they'll see on TV one day."

The deal is not complete. County administrators will negotiate with the Porter family that owns Wiregrass to write an operation and maintenance agreement for the complex, as well as transportation funding requests for the overall Wiregrass development.

County Administrator John Gallagher hopes to bring a final agreement to commissioners within two or three months.

Commissioners had previously promised $6 million in tourism tax money and another $2.5 million in sales tax proceeds. The Porters had requested another $5.5 million in tourism money.

That request at first made some commissioners balk.

"I am very concerned about putting all of the tourism dollars into this project," said Commissioner Henry Wilson.

But Wilson changed his mind after hearing details of the complex. Jason Payne, a consultant with Illinois-based Turf Solutions Group, said the fields could accommodate 2,000 teams a year between little league baseball, softball, soccer and lacrosse.

The Porters estimate that many teams could translate to about 100,000 hotel nights per year, about 10 times the hotel nights currently tied to Pasco sporting events that receive county support.

J.D. Porter said that justifies using nearly all of the tourism tax money, which is collected by hotels and other short-term lodgings, on the Wiregrass project. "The money that's going to flow into the coffers with this facility is going to increase exponentially," he said.

The fields would be open to public youth sports leagues at least 25 percent of the time, and other park amenities would be open to the public all the time.

Now the Porters and officials will haggle over final loose ends of the contract. Remaining issues include whether the family must create an escrow account for short-term operating cash if the project fails.

"If something happens and things don't work out, I need some cash," Gallagher said.

The county is also asking the family to pay for any additional fill dirt beyond the $1.4 million the Porters have committed. The Porters say that amount of dirt should be enough for the project and that any extra should come from the $14 million tourism money.

The two sides also will discuss the Porters' request to speed up construction of 2,000 homes in Wiregrass and relax transportation requirements in the development.

In other news Tuesday, Pasco commissioners:

• Approved no-wake and minimum-wake restrictions on the Anclote River that would compliment similar rules adopted by Tarpon Springs. The restrictions were prompted by the 2010 death of Michael Billiris, a well-known boat captain and former city commissioner. Laura Wessner was riding in the boat that day when it flew 50 feet into the mangroves and hit a tree. "Now that tree marks a cross that says Capt. Mike on it," she told commissioners. "If those boats would slow down, I think we could save a lot more lives. I don't want any more crosses on any more trees in the mangroves."

• Repealed, as promised, new restrictions on second-hand gold dealers and antique shop owners. The ordinance was passed earlier this year at the request of the Sheriff's Office to recover more stolen valuables. But dealers protested last month that the rules were too cumbersome. Commissioners agreed to repeal the proposal, saying the sheriff could negotiate a future agreement.

Pasco officials put all their chips on Wiregrass sports complex 04/24/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 24, 2012 9:40pm]
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