Saddlebrook criticizes Pasco County's proposed sports complex

Saddlebrook Resort estimates that its guests have paid about $5 million in tourist taxes over the past 17 years — reason enough, a company official said, for Saddlebrook to have a strong say in how the county spends that money.

And here's one of the things Saddlebrook said this week about a proposed multisports complex, which would be built with those dollars: It won't benefit Saddlebrook, the largest payer into the tourist tax fund.

"We feel we generate the tax, but it's not promoting tourism at Saddlebrook," general manager Greg Riehle told the Times on Friday. "This particular project is going to do absolutely nothing for us."

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 after it could not reach agreement with the county on a contract. County officials turned their attention to the multisports complex.

Unlike other hoteliers who spoke in favor of the proposed complex at this week's public hearings, Riehle had pointed criticism of the project, including questions about whether the county could even justify spending tourist tax money to build the complex.

He said he believes that the primary beneficiaries of the complex will turn out to be local leagues, not out-of-area tourists who would stay in local hotels. As a new member of the county's Tourist Development Council, Riehle will have a voice in whether the proposal moves forward.

"I just have to question whether this is going to pass muster legally," Riehle said at the Tuesday public meeting in Dade City.

Pasco County has teamed up with a private company, California-based Sportsplex USA, to design and build the facility. County and Sportsplex officials say the park would be open to league play during the week but reserved for tournaments on the weekends.

No site has been selected yet, but Sportsplex officials have narrowed the list of possibilities to three and will present their recommendations to commissioners next month, said president Bill Berghoff.

Though no second agreement has been worked out, Sportsplex would probably lease the facility and operate it. Sportsplex estimates that the county could save about $350,00 in operating costs each year, plus get about $150,000 in lease fees through the deal.

Commissioner Michael Cox, a strong proponent of the multisports complex, said in an interview that Saddlebrook's arguments didn't hold water with him.

He said relieving overcrowded county sports fields is "a residual benefit" of the proposed complex. As for Saddlebrook's argument that whatever is built should be a benefit to the resort, he said: "That's like Walmart, who is a huge property tax payer, saying to us, 'Well, since we pay such a high amount of property taxes, we ought to be able to tell you how to spend that money.' "

At this week's hearings, a number of residents spoke in favor of the complex. Trey Starkey, whose family's Odessa property is a possibility for the site, said youth sports leagues have had a "tragic shortage" of fields in Pasco and the complex would help address that shortage.

He added that it's Pasco's best plan "to put more heads in beds."

Other residents echoed the criticisms of commission Chairman Jack Mariano, suggesting that the facility should be run by local leagues and not by an out-of-state company.

"I'd like to see more opportunities (for) local organizations to help build this complex up," said Debbie Hatcher of Hudson.

Jeff Gray, who heads up the West Pasco Youth Soccer League, said he has no illusions that the complex would be a cure-all for overcrowded local fields. But he said he wants the project to have enough fields — he thinks eight to 10 — to make a difference.

"The bottom line is it's going to help some, but it's not going to help all," he said. "I really am worried about us not doing this right. If it's going to happen, make it happen and do it right."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Saddlebrook criticizes Pasco County's proposed sports complex 11/13/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 13, 2009 8:49pm]

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