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Sportsplex wants back in the game in Pasco

DADE CITY — In the end, Pasco commissioners didn't choose between a proposed multisports complex in Trinity and a proposed athletic center in Wesley Chapel.

They moved forward on both, thanks to a decision to look beyond just the pot of tourist tax money.

In a 4-1 vote Tuesday, commissioners opted to design and build an $11.5 million baseball and softball complex on the county-owned Trinity site recommended by Sportsplex USA.

In a second 4-1 decision, they decided to restart negotiations with Sportsplex about running the facility for at least two years. After pulling out of the deal last month citing an "adversarial environment," Sportsplex officials made overtures Monday signaling they wanted back in.

Commissioner Jack Mariano, a frequent critic of Sportsplex and its proposal to build at Trinity, was the dissenting vote in both measures. He said he did not think Sportsplex had shown a commitment to its job in Pasco, and he did not think their proposal was big enough to attract tournaments.

But Mariano joined his colleagues in a motion to put out a request for proposals from companies interested in running an "athletics events center" on the Wiregrass property once slated for a tennis stadium.

Saddlebrook Resort came up with the proposal last week for a complex of fields to host national lacrosse tournaments and exhibition games by the revived professional soccer team Tampa Bay Rowdies.

Commissioners kept both complexes on the table by expanding the funds available for construction. Now, commissioners are considering building the Trinity sports complex with a combination of funds: tourism money (about $10.5 million is available); impact fees ($9.2 million is available for parks in the Trinity area); and roughly $7 million in proceeds from a 2003 bond. That bond had been earmarked for a number of projects, including a park in the Trinity/Odessa area.

Pasco has been collecting tourist taxes from local hotels for 18 years and has no major project to show for it. A deal to build a national tennis stadium fell apart last year after Saddlebrook and county officials could not agree on an operating contract. Sportsplex had appeared to be the second company to pull out of a major sports project last month. And then came Saddlebrook's new proposal last week, championed by Mariano.

"I think as leaders we have to make a decision," said Chairwoman Pat Mulieri.

Sportsplex put itself back in the game Monday in a phone call with top county officials and Commissioner Michael Cox. Sportsplex chairman Paul Berghoff told County Administrator John Gallagher in a letter released Tuesday that he proposes completing the remaining phases of its agreement as well as staff, maintain and operate the new facility for the first "and toughest" two years of operation.

Sportsplex will send a member of its senior management team to Pasco to act as general manager. At the end of the two years, Sportsplex wants the option to extend the operating agreement for an additional 10 years or turn it into a franchise and let someone else run it.

"Our enthusiasm for the project and its success remains high," he wrote. "Hopefully once the site selection has been finalized, a more harmonious atmosphere will emerge."

Saddlebrook Resort officials, meanwhile, showed up at Tuesday's meeting — with a group of supportive Wesley Chapel business owners in tow — to expand on their proposal. Dick's Sporting Goods Tournament of Champions has nearly doubled to 53 lacrosse teams since its first year at Wesley Chapel District Park. Tournament officials say they are now bursting at the seams on the 10 fields and will likely need a second location.

This year's tournament meant big business for Saddlebrook, where 20 of the 53 teams stayed and generated 1,351 room nights, most of them over three days.

"It's going to pay for itself," said Greg Riehle, Saddlebrook general manager.

He said Saddlebrook would run it and suggested that a percentage of tourist tax revenue go toward operating it.

The site has no public road to it, so participants and spectators would have to drive through the gated Saddlebrook community to get there.

Commissioners appeared to have conflicting feelings about the proposals. Commissioner Ted Schrader initially said that for him the "book is closed" on using Sportsplex because of the company's pointed and critical letter last month.

"I don't know how you could ever go back and heal those wounds," he said. He said the Saddlebrook proposal was intriguing, however, because the lacrosse tournament had a track record. "We've got something that's already successful," he said.

Cox said he didn't see how Saddlebrook's proposal would be self-sustaining. Mulieri said she was interested in the concept but expressed frustration about how it came together, particularly Mariano's role. "You ran over there to save the day … and the board sits here and knows nothing about it," she said. "Now everything's changed and we haven't a clue about who's going to run it."

She was more interested in seeing the Trinity project move forward, with Sportsplex at the helm. "We have to think about it," she said. "Do we want to be first or do we want to be last?"

Fast facts

In other news Tuesday

• Pasco County is now clear to fire Kearney Construction Co. from a Decubellis Road extension project beset with delays. County Attorney Jeff Steinsnyder told commissioners that Kearney lawyers in federal bankruptcy court last week dropped their objection to such a move by the county.

Commissioners in March awarded Kearney a nearly $2.4 million contract to make improvements, which include roadway, drainage, signs and pavement marking work. But officials say the project, which was supposed to be finished by Oct. 28, remained an unfinished eyesore when Kearney later filed for bankruptcy.

Pasco had needed the judge's permission to take Kearney off the Decubellis job, which was considered an asset under the bankruptcy proceedings.

• Commissioners approved paying a team of consultants $163,000 to come up with a "transfer of development rights" program, which would allow rural landowners to sell their development rights to landowners in targeted growth areas.

Sportsplex wants back in the game in Pasco 01/12/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 12, 2010 8:55pm]
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