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Saddlebrook owner pitches idea for lacrosse fields at former tennis stadium site

Saddlebrook is back with a plan for a multi-field lacrosse complex on property that was once envisioned as a national tennis center.

In a letter to County Administrator John Gallagher, resort owner Tom Dempsey said the company "is interested in contributing to the development, construction, management and maintenance" of a 10-field facility on 40 acres of county land just south of the resort.

At a commission meeting Tuesday, the offer at first sounded like an ideal solution to cementing a long-term relationship with the Dick's Sporting Goods national lacrosse tournament. Pasco's largest sporting event generated an estimated $3 million of economic impact last year.

As part of a new agreement with the tournament, the county promised to commit to building new fields in the Wesley Chapel area within two years.

"I don't see any problem with having 10 fields there and then having another 10 fields down the road," said Commissioner Jack Mariano, referring to a separate proposal at Wiregrass by the Porter family. "One doesn't preclude the other."

Mariano said events could use existing parking at the resort and that owners would allow tournament-related traffic to use internal roads to access the site.

But commissioners backed off the idea for now after they realized it could jeopardize talks with the Porters, who want to build a 120-acre complex in the heart of the development near the Shops at Wiregrass and the future Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel.

"This opens up a Pandora's Box that wasn't able to be solved however many years ago," J.D. Porter told the Times.

Porter was referring to nearly a decade of stalled talks on the 40-acre parcel by Saddlebrook. For seven years, the county wanted to build a tennis center there, but the idea was shelved in 2009. The next year, Dempsey offered to build lacrosse and soccer fields on the land as an alternative to the proposed Sportsplex softball facility near Odessa. That idea — along with Sportsplex — also died.

Last fall, the county re-started negotiations by soliciting bids from anyone interested in running a tourist park on county land as part of a public-private partnership. There were two bids: one from the Porters and another for a wakeboard park at the SunWest site in Aripeka.

Entertaining the Saddlebrook idea while those bids are still open, Porter said, "really makes a mockery out of the process that they've relied on."

County Attorney Jeff Steinsnyder added: "You didn't bid that site out. Saddlebrook can't just decide it's going to (operate a facility) at that site without any sort of competitive process."

Commissioner Ted Schrader said talks with the resort would be unfair to the Porter family, who he said have been negotiating in good faith for months.

"I don't see how we can backtrack from that until we've ended negotiations with them," Schrader said. "I think you've got to exhaust the discussion with the Porters."

There are a few logistical problems. The Porters' offer includes swapping the county's 40 acres near the resort with an equal amount of land in the middle of Wiregrass. Building fields on the original site would muck up the land swap.

Another issue is that a park in the central portion of the development was included in the agreement with Raymond James Financial to build two 100,000 square-foot office towers at the site. If the park goes away, the county would have to revisit its agreement with Raymond James.

Gallagher is meeting with the Porters on Wednesday. He suggested building an initial phase of the project with $8.5 million in tourism tax money and sales taxes. That would pay for 11 fields that could be used for lacrosse, soccer or football. Two fields would be artificial turf and would be available to the public. The other fields would be natural grass and used mainly for tournaments.

At Tuesday's commission meeting, commissioners gave the family a 60-day deadline to reach an agreement on the project. Gallagher said that would keep negotiations from languishing like the tennis center and Sportsplex.

"I've got no issues with that," Porter said of the deadline. "We feel like we've gotten through a majority of the stuff."

Porter said he is fine with building the first phase of the project "to get the ball rolling to solve the immediate crisis" of keeping the lacrosse tournament.

"We should also allow this thing to mature into the overall plan that we presented earlier," he said.

Mariano said disputes over whether the county would own the land under the park could doom the project. If the 60 days pass without a deal, he wants to go after the Saddlebrook land. "It's the faster one to put together," he said.

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

Saddlebrook owner pitches idea for lacrosse fields at former tennis stadium site 03/22/12 [Last modified: Thursday, March 22, 2012 8:39pm]

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