WESLEY CHAPEL — Saddlebrook Resort is pitching a new idea for how to spend millions of dollars in tourist tax money:
Build a 10-field complex that would give a popular lacrosse tournament a place to expand and professional soccer team Tampa Bay Rowdies a place to train in the preseason.
The location? On the nearby county property once envisioned as the home of a national tennis stadium.
The new proposal, now being pushed by Commissioner Jack Mariano, began circulating in county offices this week and comes amid a lingering debate over how to spend nearly $11 million in tourist tax funds.
That debate took a new turn last week when Sportsplex USA, the consultant for a proposed multisports facility focused largely on softball and baseball fields, announced it was pulling out of the deal because of an "adversarial environment."
Saddlebrook officials had criticized the Sportsplex proposal to build the project in Trinity as a wrong use of tourist tax money — in part because it would not have benefitted Saddlebrook, whose guests pay the largest chunk of taxes into the fund.
Greg Riehle, general manager of Saddlebrook Resort, said the company would have brought the proposal forward even if Sportsplex had not made its decision.
"We would have brought it up as a potential alternative to what we saw as a misuse of the funds," said Riehle, who also sits on the county's Tourist Development Council.
He said the resort had been in months-long discussions with the Tampa Bay Rowdies, a newly revived franchise team, about using Saddlebrook property and other private fields as a potential training ground.
But those discussions have been evolving to include the public property that is part of the Wiregrass development, taking its latest form after last weekend's Dick's Sporting Goods Tournament of Champions, the boys' high school club lacrosse national championship.
The tournament has nearly doubled to 53 teams since its first year at Wesley Chapel District Park. And tournament officials say they are now bursting at the seams on the 10 fields at the district park.
"We are maxed out right now," said Brian Tatum, director of operations for NDP Lacrosse, the management team behind the tournament.
This year's tournament meant big business for Saddlebrook, where 20 of the 53 teams stayed and generated 1,351 room nights, most of them over a three-day period.
Riehle said that as Saddlebrook talked with tournament officials, a proposal began to take shape: Why not turn the former tennis stadium site into a "Pasco athletic events center?"
That means a place for the lacrosse tournament to expand, the Rowdies to train and possibly other tournaments and events, such as rugby and flag football, he said.
It's early to put a price tag on the project, he said, but he roughly estimated it would cost about $5 million or $6 million.
Part of the pitch is that the center would keep the lacrosse tournament in Pasco. Last year, when it had only 35 teams, the event brought well over $1 million into Pasco County, according to a formula that looks at hotel stays and assumes a certain per day expenditure for each person.
Tatum, the tournament official, said he's happy with Pasco but does worry what comes next if the event grows by leaps and bounds. He mentioned that a number of municipalities nationwide have called and "expressed some real genuine desire" to attract the tournament.
"They want to stay here," said Mariano. "But they're a little concerned they could use more field space."
Saddlebrook and tournament officials began talking with Mariano, who attended the event, over the weekend.
On Monday, Mariano asked Assistant County Administrator Dan Johnson if there was expansion room for more fields at the Wesley Chapel District Park. The answer was no, because of various site constraints.
Then Mariano wanted to know about how many fields could be built at the Wiregrass site. The answer was between eight and 12.
Saddlebrook officials and Mariano later met with county staff to talk more about the proposal.
Eric Keaton, Pasco's tourism manager, had not heard the proposal until this week. He said he knew the lacrosse tournament needed more space — "We had that conversation in passing," he said — but figured next year it could use four existing fields at nearby Wesley Chapel High School.
Lots of questions remain, including how operation costs would be funded. And the only way to get to the proposed site is through Saddlebrook — literally.
Construction of Porter Boulevard, a public road associated with the Wiregrass development, is likely years away.
Riehle said that the traffic through Saddlebrook could be handled since it would be "event specific," and the general public would not be going every day for recreation.
Saddlebrook had wanted to run a 5,000-seat, $7.9 million tennis stadium that would have been built in Wesley Chapel with tourist tax money. The resort walked away from the deal last year after it could not reach agreement with the county on a contract.
Commissioners were already scheduled to discuss at their meeting Tuesday how to proceed on the Sportsplex issue. Saddlebrook officials also expect to be on hand that day to discuss their proposal.
Commissioner Michael Cox met Thursday with Saddlebrook Resort owner Tom Dempsey about the latest idea.
Cox, a strong supporter of Sportsplex's proposal, said he had a number of concerns, including how it would generate enough revenue to pay for itself. (The Sportsplex concept included local leagues playing during the week — and dining at the restaurant/pub at the complex's center.)
Pasco officials have said throughout the debate that the county has money to build parks — but not enough money to operate them.
"I'm concerned it's not going to be a revenue neutral, revenue positive project for the county," Cox said. "How does it generate revenue for upkeep and maintenance of the park?"
Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.