WESLEY CHAPEL — A proposal to build a $7.9 million tennis stadium with the potential to bring in big name players and put Pasco County on the map as a tourist destination died Monday after executives with a private resort walked away from the deal.
Saddlebrook Resort owner Tom Dempsey said his company dropped out because it could not reach an agreement with the county on a contract.
"It's that simple," he said.
He declined to talk specifics about the deal, which had been in the making since 2002, but said it dealt with liability "the county insisted on shoving on us."
He said if the county's original proposal looked like what was being put forward now, "we never would have pursued it."
His tone was a far cry from the enthusiasm of eight years ago when he first pitched the idea as a win-win.
Just last year, Dempsey said the deal appeared "99.9 percent finished," and he was comfortable with it, except for minor details that could be changed. "Somebody would have to be pretty stubborn for it not to get done," Dempsey said then.
Under the plan, the county would use its accumulated tourist tax, a 2 percent surcharge on hotel stays, to build the 5,000-seat, 15-court stadium on 24 acres donated by the Porter family, the landowners behind the massive Wiregrass development. Saddlebrook would then operate the facility, which the county would continue to own.
A draft contract county officials approved in 2008 included substantial protections for the public. To offset a potential for a public subsidy, Saddlebrook was required to post $500,000 in certificates of deposit and four condominiums, with an estimated current value of $150,000 each, as initial collateral. Dempsey estimated annual operating costs at $175,000, which means his company was providing the equivalent of six years' worth of expenses at the outset of the contract.
County staffers could not be reached for comment Monday. But commissioners offered some ideas about why the deal fell apart. Namely, county officials didn't want to leave taxpayers on the hook for losses, and Saddlebrook, which is feeling the effects of a deep economic recession, didn't want to assume the liability.
"In case anything went wrong, the county didn't want to be responsible," said Commission Chairman Jack Mariano. "It was a long process, and everybody wants to see a win-win situation, but we just didn't get there, I guess."
Commissioner Ted Schrader said Dempsey called him to tell him the news. "It just appears due to his financial situation and economically stressful times and the issues unresolved with Pasco County it's going to be in his best interest not to pursue the stadium at this time. He just felt uncomfortable with the language the County Attorney's office was insisting be included."
Schrader expressed disappointment that a deal couldn't be struck, noting that Pasco's proximity to Tampa and St. Petersburg make it difficult to attract sporting venues and "tennis seemed to be a perfect fit."
But "it's better that we have answers now as opposed to having a venue with someone that's not going to be good partners."
He said the county could continue to explore other options, including a multisport park that is being discussed.
Commissioner Pat Mulieri, who serves as chairwoman of the Tourist Development Council, said the contract had been "revised and revised and it was getting to a point where a decision had to be made."
"Since they could not come to a conclusion, it's probably better to say this is it."
Commissioner Michael Cox, who once called the proposed stadium "welfare to the rich" but later supported further negotiations, said he was hopeful the county would still pursue the multisport complex.
"I'm just looking forward to the county moving on," he said. "I still think there were better uses for that money."
Commissioner Ann Hildebrand said a tennis stadium would have been a real boon to the county.
"That bothers me," said Hildebrand, who added that she had thought the stadium proposal was progressing. "We can't reinvent the Rays and the Bucs, and we don't have the beaches."
She said it's a shame that the county has collected the tax for nearly two decades and still has "nothing to show for that."
"Now we regroup," she said.
Mariano said the deal's collapse would no doubt open up other opportunities, which the county should aggressively pursue to help generate revenue to maintain parks.
"We've got to get heads in beds," he said.
One thing commissioners made clear was that the money could not be used to help plug a $30 million budget hole.
"The law is very specific on how you can spend tourist tax dollars," Hildebrand said.
Times staff writer David DeCamp contributed to this report. Lisa Buie can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4604.