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What brought Sportsplex talks back to Pasco after company bolted?

In its letter to the county late last month, consultant Sports­plex USA made one thing clear: It didn't want to stick around and operate a multisports facility.

"The current environment in Pasco County tells me there is no way we could successfully coexist on a long-term basis running a business endeavor as partners," the company wrote on Dec. 28.

But this week, the California-based company put itself back in the mix, offering to run a proposed facility for at least two years and maybe more.

So what changed?

A few friendly phone calls and a new franchise idea, said Bill Berghoff, president of Sports­plex.

"The enthusiasm, the assurances we got from certain commissioners that 'Hey, the Dec. 1 meeting was an embarrassment to all of us. … Please stick with us,' " said Berghoff, who runs the company with his father, Paul.

That Dec. 1 commission meeting on the Sportsplex recommendation to build a softball/baseball field facility in Trinity lasted several hours, and the pair faced a number of point-by-point questions from their toughest critic, Commissioner Jack Mariano, about their proposal. In the end, commissioners delayed voting on the site amid unanswered questions.

The Berghoffs got phone calls from commissioners Ann Hildebrand and Pat Mulieri shortly after the company sent its Dec. 28 letter.

"I said I hoped they'd reconsider," Hildebrand said. She said she told them they had "solid support" from the staff and the majority of the board. But she said she was as surprised as any to learn Tuesday that Sportsplex still wanted to operate the proposed facility.

Mulieri said she was blunt with the Berghoffs about the situation.

"I said, 'Well, you know that's life. Politics is politics,' " she said.

She said that when she called the Berghoffs, she explained her strategy in putting off the vote on Dec. 1: She would have voted with Hildebrand and Cox to move the project along, but wanted to let Commissioner Ted Schrader get his questions answered so they could have a chance at a 4-1 vote.

Mulieri said she also told them she had contacted another consultant, a company connected to baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., and thought the time had come to build a complex before someone else does.

Then on Friday, the Berghoffs contacted Commissioner Michael Cox, who had been their strongest proponent, and he set up a conference call with County Administrator John Gallagher earlier this week.

Sportsplex proposes completing the remaining phases of its agreement as well as staffing, maintaining and operating the new facility for the first two years of operation. Then Sportsplex would either extend the operating agreement for an additional 10 years or turn it into a franchise and let someone else run it.

Berghoff said his father had long talked about franchise opportunities once the company expanded out of California. As they've been thinking about trying to return to Pasco, he said, that business model seemed a good fit because of some public criticism about having a California company running the facility.

"It just seemed to make sense with this, being as far as the facility is," he said.

Commissioners on Tuesday opted to begin negotiations with Sportsplex on that proposal. Talks with county staff are scheduled to begin the first week of February.

Just as Sportsplex re-entered the scene, commissioners are also considering proposals for an athletics events center near Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel.

And a group of Hudson residents has formed a corporation called Hudson Sports Complex and is shopping its own proposal around to commissioners in coming days before pitching it to the Tourist Development Council next Wednesday, said Jeff Sylvan, one of the group's organizers.

Mariano has been helping shepherd both of those proposals along.

The Dec. 28 letter from Sports­plex left open the door as far as the company returning to help finish the design work. But the letter was highly critical and called out Mariano by name; Schrader alluded to that tone on Tuesday when he said: "I don't know how you could ever go back and heal those wounds."

But Berghoff said he had no regrets about the letter. And county officials asked Paul Berghoff if he would retract the letter, Cox said. He refused.

"I don't regret the letter at all," said Bill Berghoff. "I think it freed up the dialogue to get something done. It created a little urgency."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

What brought Sportsplex talks back to Pasco after company bolted? 01/13/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 13, 2010 9:15pm]
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