NEW PORT RICHEY — The California-based consultant hired to help Pasco County plan and build a tourist tax-funded sports facility has pulled out of the deal.
Sportsplex USA blamed "the constant ridiculous harangue spewed forth by (Commissioner) Jack Mariano" as well as "diverse individual efforts trying to impact or derail the project."
"We are not a P.R. firm attempting to sell this project to the citizenry nor do we have the expertise to navigate all the political agendas," Sportsplex chairman Paul Berghoff wrote in a letter Monday to County Administrator John Gallagher.
Pasco County in August signed a $270,000, multiphase contract with Sportsplex to help plan and build the sports fields envisioned to host weekend ball tournaments that would attract people to local hotels. Sportsplex also wanted to operate the facility, which would have included a restaurant.
Sportsplex has finished only the first phase of the contract — a study that recommended building the facility on county-owned property in Trinity — and says it is now finished. That study comes with a $60,000 price tag for the county.
"The current environment in Pasco County tells me there is no way we could successfully co-exist on a long-term basis running a business endeavor as partners," Berghoff wrote.
Commissioner Ann Hildebrand put it more succinctly Tuesday: "We got jilted at the altar."
Sportsplex officials did not return phone calls for comment Tuesday. They have been shopping their consulting services around Florida and recently talked with officials in at least two other counties, Orange and Manatee, about potential projects.
Mariano said Tuesday that the company is wrong to blame him in the letter for its decision to withdraw from the Pasco project.
"I think every question I've had to ask is fair," he said. "I have to do the due diligence because they didn't seem to want to do it."
He has pushed the company to release 15 years' worth of financial reports and grilled company officials on everything from the number of fields it recommends to its proposed use of artificial grass. His line of questioning drew criticism from fellow commissioners.
Mariano said he thinks Sportsplex, which focuses on local league play at its facilities in California, pulled out because it realized it didn't have the expertise to handle "all the heads in beds (hotel stays) they were responsible for."
Though commissioners' last meeting with Sportsplex officials did turn contentious at times, news of the firm's withdrawal came as a surprise — in part because the project likely had enough votes to move forward.
Chairwoman Pat Mulieri said Tuesday that she would have gone along with Hildebrand and Commissioner Michael Cox to move ahead but wanted to wait until Commissioner Ted Schrader had received answers to follow-up questions he had.
She reasoned that Schrader would join her and the other two, turning a 3 to 2 vote into a 4 to 1 vote. So she put off the vote until next month.
"I didn't think one month would make that big of a difference," she said. "I thought everything was set. So I was really surprised."
She wondered if Sportsplex might be close to another deal somewhere else in Florida.
"Maybe they found a county that's more welcoming," she said.
Schrader said Tuesday that he could never figure out what Mariano was trying to accomplish.
"I think commissioners certainly have the right to ask questions," he said. "It was frustrating that Jack didn't seem to have any clear direction. … (Mariano) seemed to be clearly questioning all aspects of Sportsplex and was making attempts to kill the project."
But he, too, was surprised by the company's move and didn't think that Mariano was the sole reason it pulled out. Like other commissioners, he wondered if Sportsplex might be leaving for another project.
Cox, one of the project's strongest proponents, said he was struck by the line in the company's letter saying Sportsplex is not a public relations firm.
"That might be part of the dynamic working against them. They took those comments being made to heart," he said. "They were tired of having their integrity questioned."
In some ways, that raises another question: If Sportsplex wasn't prepared to handle the politics, was it the right company for the project?
Mulieri said her understanding is that the company simply hasn't needed those skills for its projects in California. "I don't know if that means they're less of a company," she said.
Chief Assistant Administrator Michele Baker said Sportsplex officials "were surprised by the level of discussion and not prepared for that.
"They've decided they're not the right person to be at our table. Who am I to disagree with them?"
Commissioners will decide how to proceed at their next meeting on Jan. 12.
Cox said he views Sportsplex's departure as a "speed bump" and he wants commissioners to decide where to build the project, then put out another request for proposals from potential operators.
"There's no reason for me to believe we won't get some responses," he said.
Hildebrand said she is all for it but pointed out that Sportsplex was one of only two firms to respond the first time around.
"We didn't have a whole lot of people knocking at the door," she said. "That's a lofty goal, and I support that. But after this blast, are they going to want to be coming here, too?"
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.