NEW PORT RICHEY — The SunWest Park project in Aripeka took a step forward Wednesday when Pasco County commissioners approved an agreement with a park operator.
The agreement, approved unanimously, runs for 45 years and provides the county an annual 3 percent cut of gross operating revenues.
The tenant and park operator, Sunwest Park Inc., headed by Patrick Panakos, will install a wakeboard facility, floating docks and employ staff to run the wakeboard cables and other park amenities.
The agreement is a first step of many yet to come before the facility opens next year. When construction starts still isn't known.
The county must still choose a contractor to build the park, currently budgeted at $3.4 million, and is negotiating with three builders to include as many amenities as possible — including landscaping, volleyball courts, a snack bar, a beach, restrooms and, possibly, a boardwalk.
Plus a volleyball tournament operator, Extreme Volleyball Professionals, has talked about using the facility for training and matches.
The agreement was approved after a brief exchange between Commission Chairman Jack Mariano, the project's most vocal backer, and commissioners Henry Wilson and Ted Schrader, who said they support the park but wouldn't support going over budget to allow for scores of revisions, including a boardwalk.
"This thing has changed and evolved at your request," Schrader told Mariano.
Wilson chimed in, "All we have ever said is that you have a set amount of money to use and that is all you have, because there is no more money in the budget."
The commission chairman explained the project is an opportunity to give Pasco an economic boost — if done right. He called for a vote on the operator's agreement moments later.
Panakos said his wakeboard equipment would go in after the park is built. He said the agreement will help him to raise capital to install the equipment and make other investments totaling about $1.4 million.
"Hopefully, it will open in the spring of 2015," he said. "That's the goal."
Later, the conversation returned to the park's amenities. Administrator Michele Baker said she would see whether tourism development funds could be used to increase the park's budget.
In other business:
• Commissioners waded into the years-long fight between Summertree residents and their water provider, Utilities Inc. of Florida.
With about 200 Summertree residents in attendance, many in matching red T-shirts, commissioners approved a resolution to urge the Florida Governmental Utility Authority (FGUA) to try to purchase the Summertree water system from Utilities Inc. of Florida.
The commission also approved a resolution to support two bills in Tallahassee to limit the rates utilities can charge while forcing them to improve water quality.
For years, residents of the west Pasco neighborhood south of State Road 52 have complained about the yellowish color and bad taste of their water while paying Pasco's highest rates, with bills exceeding $80 a month.
Some residents refuse to drink the water. Others spend hundreds of dollars yearly for water filters. The residents say the problem has even affected home sales.
"We can't afford to stay with Utilities Inc. of Florida," said Ann Marie Ryan, who oversees the ad-hoc group Summertree Water Alliance. "We need your help."
Another resident, Lee Robida, told commissioners, "If a solution is not found Summertree will suffer financially."
The residents say Utilities Inc. has done little to improve water quality. They told commissioners they want FGUA to purchase the system, though that could take years. In the absence of a sale, they say they'd like Utilities Inc. of Florida to switch from well water to the county's water system — a $2.6 million project.
Mariano asked staff whether the county could lower its fees to accommodate the residents, but was told the fees are set by ordinance and apply equally to all ratepayers.
• The commission unanimously approved a one-year contract with Teamsters Local 79, which represents about 1,100 Pasco workers.
The union approved the contract earlier this month by a 248-63 vote following three years of talks that stalled over issues including overtime pay and discipline rules.