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Pasco officials put Sportsplex plans on hold, weigh options in Wesley Chapel

DADE CITY — Pasco commissioners may scrap the long-planned Sportsplex in Odessa in favor of a Wesley Chapel sports complex that would be nearly six times as big.

That stunning possibility emerged Tuesday near the close of a Pasco commission workshop following a brief presentation by representatives of the Porter family, owners of the Wiregrass Ranch in Wesley Chapel.

Wiregrass Ranch is negotiating with an unnamed group to build a 30-field complex off State Road 56. That private group would buy the land from the family and operate the proposed facility — which would include fields for lacrosse, soccer, adult and youth baseball and softball — at no cost to the county, said Wiregrass attorney Bill Merrill.

The family wants to use 40 acres set aside for a county park as part of that project and would like the county to sweeten the deal with an as-yet-undetermined amount of tourist tax money to help build the project, Merrill said. This project doesn't include the planned hockey arena, though that facility is nearby.

Commissioners expressed excitement about what Chairwoman Ann Hildebrand called a "mega sportsplex," and questioned whether they should proceed with the five-field sports complex at Starkey Ranch if this much bigger one at Wiregrass pans out.

"I don't know why we'd want to build two," Commissioner Ted Schrader said.

Commissioners directed county staff to put Sportsplex in Odessa on ice for about 60 days while Wiregrass Ranch representatives work out the details of their plan.

Hildebrand, a champion of the Starkey Ranch site and close friend of the Starkey family, said after the meeting she was torn but could not see proceeding with two projects.

"You won't have the money to do both," she said.

Commissioner Jack Mariano, a longtime critic of Sportsplex, also showed initial support for the Wesley Chapel project.

Last June, Starkey Ranch was named the future home of a sports complex aimed at attracting big softball tournaments. Funding for the $12 million project, which California-based Sportsplex USA wants to operate, would come from a combination of tourist tax, impact fees and half-cent sales tax bond proceeds.

Commissioners also at that time decided to proceed with buying an additional 40 acres from the Starkey family and building another set of fields for local youth sports.

Since then, the project has been tied up in negotiations on the operating contract and over the purchase of the additional 40 acres.

Merrill and J.D. Porter Jr. said after Tuesday's meeting that they did not believe their project would compete for tournaments with the Odessa Sportsplex.

"I think we're going after two different markets," Porter said.

But does he think the county should proceed with two projects? "That's the question I have, too," he said.

Commissioners met Tuesday in part to discuss their funding problem: They've got more sports projects on paper than they've got the money to build. (And that was before the Porter family made their pitch.)

The deficit? $6.8 million.

The projects include the $12 million Sportsplex plus a new estimate of $5 million for developing the additional 40 acres at Starkey Ranch. Another $2 million would go toward expanding soccer fields at Mitchell Park.

And building the small passive park — walking trails, tennis and basketball courts — that Trinity residents have demanded for the 24 acres near the county fire station? That could cost around $1.75 million, according to a surprising new estimate from county staff. Initial estimates put that project budget in line with the Lake Lisa Park in Embassy Hills, roughly $434,000.

County Administrator John Gallagher had his staff put together the figures after he said he "had a feeling I was spending more money than I had."

Even if commissioners decide to move forward with the Sportsplex at Starkey Ranch, some commissioners were poised to walk away from the purchase of the additional 40 acres for local fields because of the costs.

Commissioner Pat Mulieri, sensing that mood, said she'd thought the county was trying to do something big at the site. "I thought the big push was for the 80 acres," she said.

"But look at the dollars!" said Hildebrand.

Commissioners directed Gallagher to pare down the amenities proposed at the Trinity Boulevard park to lower the price tag.

But construction costs for the projects, which come from impact fees, aren't as big of a dilemma as operating costs. As property tax revenue for park operations has declined, commissioners have turned to $2 parking fees to supplement the budget.

Since November, Pasco has collected about $60,000. Most of that money ($45,000) is from the purchase of annual passes.

Mariano, who has been trying to kill the fees, is now trying to challenge the county's legal authority to collect the money. That issue will come up at next week's commission meeting in New Port Richey.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Pasco officials put Sportsplex plans on hold, weigh options in Wesley Chapel 01/18/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 18, 2011 7:47pm]

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