Consultant Sportsplex USA this week gave sharply worded reasons for its decision to part ways with Pasco County:
Commissioner Jack Mariano "despises" the company. People are trying to derail their work. Others are sending conflicting signals.
Yet officials with the California-based firm hired to help plan and build a multiuse sports facility might be willing to return to what they call an "adversarial environment."
In an interview Wednesday, Paul and Bill Berghoff of Sportsplex said they would consider helping get the facility off the ground — and even train a local company on how to operate it.
"We have not lost any enthusiasm about the viability of the project," said company chairman Paul Berghoff.
The father-and-son team said it's the community that lacks the "unified support" for the project.
"What we're doing is making a business decision based on an underlying tone that's been pretty gosh darn adversarial," Paul Berghoff said.
They said they base that assessment partly on Mariano's line of questioning but also on e-mails from a Wesley Chapel lawyer and some of the critical comments from residents at public meetings.
In August, Pasco County 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, something that Berghoff says it no longer wants to do.
As part of the first phase, Sportsplex finished a report recommending building the facility on county-owned property in Trinity.
That site already has roads and infrastructure, meaning the county would not have to spend money to prep the site, said Rich Bekesh, president of Spring Engineering, which worked with Sportsplex. Other sites, according to their analysis, would have come with hefty price tags or permitting delays before construction of the building could begin, he said.
The Berghoffs said they were thrown off by Commissioner Ted Schrader's recent suggestion to build two facilities. They said commissioners should be committing to the site Sportsplex recommended and sticking with that decision.
"We don't want to have to defend the (recommended) location over the Starkey property," Paul Berghoff said. "I want the commissioners to say, 'Hey, we've made a decision and this makes sense.' "
Starkey Ranch also has gotten attention as a possible site.
When it comes to deciding where to build the facility, the Berghoffs said they underestimated Pasco County's east vs. west dynamic.
"We basically came out with the feeling that the size of the county dictates that one side is going to benefit and one is not going to benefit," Paul Berghoff said.
Sportsplex says what it sees as a distrust of an outside company running a facility in Pasco could be addressed by hiring a local company to do the job.
At one of its California facilities, for instance, an experienced restaurateur is running the restaurant — the money maker — and Sportsplex officials are training him how to market the fields for ball tournaments and supplying him with their sports association contacts.
Sportsplex is trying to get a foothold in the Florida market, and company officials have met with an Orange County commissioner. Manatee County officials have also followed up on information Sportsplex sent to their office, though Sportsplex says it hasn't talked with anyone there.
The Berghoffs said Wednesday that there is no prospective deal anywhere else that played into their decision.
"We don't have a better deal in Florida," Bill Berghoff said.
County officials have said they were surprised by the timing of Sportsplex's letter. Commissioners held a long meeting with Sportsplex this month but put off a vote until January amid some unanswered questions.
Paul Berghoff said that "everything that has come forth since has been thumbs down." He cited Schrader's two parks idea as well as a long list of questions from Wesley Chapel lawyer Stephen Bennet about whether the facility could be funded with the tourist tax.
Did anything push him over the edge? Paul Berghoff said it was when his son last week showed him a line in a recent column by a Tampa Tribune opinion writer.
That line said, "One commissioner who must be persuaded despises the company selected to vet the process and put it into action."
Berghoff, in his Monday letter to County Administrator John Gallagher, wrote of "the constant ridiculous harangue spewed forth by Jack Mariano, including 'he despises us and our firm.' "
Mariano said Tuesday that he had never said he "despises" Sportsplex. "Matter of fact," he said, "I do find them personable."
Berghoff said he assumed Mariano had spoken with the columnist.
At any rate, the pair said they see Mariano as an obstacle.
"There are many more places in the United States that has a bigger welcome mat than Commissioner Jack Mariano kneeing us in the groin," Bill Berghoff said.
But just one commissioner?
Bill Berghoff said that Mariano isn't a typical citizen but "somebody who has a legion of staff to continually rake you over the coals."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.