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Pasco tourism board endorses contract for tennis stadium

NEW PORT RICHEY — A contract for Saddlebrook Resort to run a proposed 5,000-seat tennis stadium won the endorsement of Pasco County's tourism board Wednesday, keeping the lagging project alive.

The $7.9-million complex has been bogged down for six years in contract negotiations and conceptual drawings as the county also struggled to secure land, receive environmental permits and put a cap on the construction budget.

Last week, County Commissioner Ted Schrader expressed doubt the 15-court tennis complex would be built because of recent trouble negotiating a deal with Saddlebrook Resort, which is supposed to run the stadium next door.

But now, with the Tourist Development Council's endorsement, the deal with Saddlebrook is headed to the County Commission. The panel's blessing came after County Administrator John Gallagher and county attorneys agreed to back the contract, following months of bumpy talks with Tom Dempsey, chief executive officer of Saddlebrook, a nationally known tennis training site.

"We've survived everything," Dempsey said before the vote.

Tourist board member Dick Boehning, a Saddlebrook executive, abstained from the 7-0 vote.

The County Commission endorsed the project in 2007, so commissioners expect to approve the deal. Schrader, who was out of the office Wednesday and did not return messages, could not be reached for reaction.

Dempsey had said Schrader's assessment was wrong because Schrader wasn't involved in negotiations. Gallagher had expressed frustration to Schrader a month earlier, though.

However, the stadium still is at least two to three years from opening. Bids have to be taken on construction, and that includes getting a contractor to agree to a guaranteed maximum price. The commission would also need to approve a development agreement with Saddlebrook, although senior assistant county attorney Jane Fagan said Pasco and Saddlebrook have reached a deal in principle.

In spring 2007, the county approved spending money from taxes on hotel stays to build the stadium. While Pasco would own the complex, Saddlebrook would be responsible for operating it. No property taxes would be used.

The proposed management contract requires Saddlebrook to provide a pair of $250,000 certificates of deposit and four condominiums as collateral if the operating costs aren't recouped. That pledge was key to winning Gallagher's support a month ago.

Saddlebrook is supposed to land three tennis events a year, although corporate outings and concerts can also take place.

Dempsey said it will cost $175,000 a year to operate the complex, which will be adjacent to the resort. He expects to rely on his company's relationships with national tennis groups to bring events to Wesley Chapel.

"In my opinion, you don't need any collateral. … Saddlebrook International Tennis is a spectacular company," Dempsey said.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6232.

Pasco tourism board endorses contract for tennis stadium 08/06/08 [Last modified: Friday, August 8, 2008 5:00pm]
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