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Pasco sends mystery shoppers to check out a ballpark company

Replica ballfields in Gilbert, Ariz., operated by Big League Dreams of California. In July, two Pasco County officials visited a similar complex in West Covina, Calif.

Big League Dreams

Replica ballfields in Gilbert, Ariz., operated by Big League Dreams of California. In July, two Pasco County officials visited a similar complex in West Covina, Calif.

As secret agents go, they would never be confused with James Bond, or even Austin Powers.

However, they could pass as two average Joes on a three-night stay at a Best Western hotel, rental car included. Only these two had a government expense account.

Pasco County parks director Rick Buckman and public communications manager Eric Keaton quietly were dispatched to southern California in late July to secretly observe four parks with replica baseball fields run by Big League Dreams. The county decided in June to begin talks with the company about running a similar complex in Pasco.

Buckman and Keaton were like mystery shoppers at Macy's, but with eyes toward parking, awnings and concession sales. They wanted to see how the company worked when it didn't know potential customers were coming.

"The only people we were trying to be stealthy about was Big League Dreams. If you know you've got company coming, you clean the house," said Michele Baker, chief assistant county administrator.

And Pasco succeeded — Big League Dreams didn't know about the trip, said its consultant, Pat Kight. To his knowledge, such surreptitious visits have never happened with the 16 other communities in which Big League Dreams has worked.

He said he had asked that county officials visit several times. He said it would have been nice to be able to answer questions.

"I don't want to step on my toes here, I gotta be careful how I say this: We have a long — if this thing were to go through —we would have long relationship, about 30 to 40 years" with Pasco County, Kight said. "Everything we do, we do straight-up."

The visit was more perplexing because Kight said the negotiations for a Pasco facility haven't started. The County Commission approval to start talks came in June, though he understands Pasco has lots of issues to handle.

"I've had no communication with anybody with the staff in the last couple of months. I thought they were going to enter into negotiations, but we've had none thus far," he said.

County Commissioner Michael Cox, the top proponent of the project, said Friday he would make determining the status of negotiations a priority. Baker did not return a follow-up call Friday afternoon.

"I thought we were negotiating with them, because that's what I'd been told," Cox said.

If a deal is struck for Pasco, Big League Dreams of California would run a multisport complex featuring scaled-down versions of iconic baseball parks like Yankee Stadium. The company runs nine sites in Arizona, California and Texas, with others in the works.

The county would supply the land in a west or central part of Pasco, and build it using tourism tax money and impact fees on new construction. The County Commission has to approve any project.

The total cost is roughly estimated at $30-million, but Pasco wouldn't have to spend property taxes and is supposed to ultimately turn a profit. The complex is supposed to attract leagues and large tournaments.

From July 24 to 27, Buckman and Keaton went to four California locations: Cathedral City, Chino Hills, Mira Loma and West Covina.

The county spent $1,600 for the trip. It will come out of tourism taxes paid on hotel stays, Baker said.

A full report by Buckman and Keaton, who helps run Pasco's Tourist Development Council, is due in September. They were on vacation last week.

But on Aug. 11, Buckman sent Keaton this feedback on the trip, exchanging thoughts using a double-secret communications system (county e-mail):

• "Staff appeared friendly and active … some differences in maintenance issues between parks was evident, liability and alcohol signage all around. … a coke, cheeseburger and fries was $8.50. …"

• "West Covina site appeared to be a potentially good model to start with." It has two shaded playgrounds, a practice area with artificial turf, and a pavilion for adult soccer, Buckman reported. During evening events, Buckman saw staff picking up litter "like you might see at a theme park."

• Mira Loma needed "some maintenance" on fields, facades and restrooms.

"These parks appear to serve mainly tournaments and special events along with adult sports league play," the e-mail says, noting it could free space for youth programs at existing Pasco sites.

Cox said the trip was valuable. Top county officials and Cox could make an announced visit later this year to see sites run by the company.

And sending two mystery employees made sense, Cox said.

"If you're going to look at investing millions of dollars, I think it's appropriate," Cox said.

Pasco sends mystery shoppers to check out a ballpark company 08/30/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 2, 2008 3:18pm]
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