NEW PORT RICHEY — Three years in the making, the proposed tourism magnet Sportsplex is now dead.
An executive with California-based Sportsplex USA wrote county attorneys last week that the company is pulling out of the proposed multifield softball complex. The letter was faxed with the note, "I'm sorry it has come to this, but maybe it was never meant to be."
"A lot of people on both sides have put in a sincere effort to make this work," wrote Sportsplex chairman Paul Berghoff. "However, the events of the last three years have us skeptical that it will ever happen."
The complex was seen as a way to boost tourism in Pasco by attracting sports tournaments. But it faced several delays over the scope of the project, location and contractual issues.
In December 2009, the company first pulled out of the deal, citing "the constant ridiculous harangue spewed forth by (Commissioner) Jack Mariano." Commissioners later persuaded the company to reconsider.
Last June, Starkey Ranch was named as the site for the five-field, $12 million project. Commissioners had also hoped to purchase more land for youth leagues, though that complicated negotiations as well.
But in January, commissioners heard a proposal by the Porter family, owners of Wiregrass Ranch in Wesley Chapel. Wiregrass is negotiating with an unnamed group to build a 30-field complex off State Road 56.
The family wants to use 40 acres set aside for a county park and would like the county to sweeten the deal with an as-yet-undetermined amount of tourist taxes.
At the January meeting, commissioners seemed intrigued by the Porter offer. They said the two complexes wouldn't necessarily compete, but that the county didn't have the money to build and operate both. They asked county staffers to put the Sportsplex plan on ice for two months.
In his letter, Berghoff lamented several "unresolved issues," including the project site, the final design, the timeline and the source of the funding. He also cited the loss of the project's "driving force" — former Commissioner Michael Cox, who lost a re-election bid in November.
News of Sportsplex's decision came with little discussion Tuesday during a commission meeting. Reaction to the letter was mixed.
"I was disgusted," Commissioner Pat Mulieri said in an interview afterward. "We couldn't agree. We were dithering. I don't blame them for backing out because it took so long."
Mariano, a longtime critic of the Sportsplex site, took a different tact.
"I'm absolutely delighted," he said, adding that the complex "doesn't generate hotel nights" and that visitors would likely stay in Pinellas or Hillsborough counties.
Mariano said he was open to considering the Porter proposal but is holding out hope for an alternative proposal at the Starkey site that would include more soccer fields that could be used by youth leagues.