DADE CITY — Commission Chairman Jack Mariano was already having second thoughts on hiring Sportsplex USA to help build a multisports complex using local tourist tax dollars.
"I'm concerned about their objectives matching ours," he wrote in a Sept. 17 e-mail to top staffers. He has floated the idea of local leagues operating the complex instead.
Mariano shared his thoughts with Larry Pendleton, the president of the Florida Sports Foundation, and asked him to review the Sportsplex proposal.
Pendleton put his concerns in writing, which Mariano shared with his fellow commissioners on Tuesday.
"I am puzzled on why you would go outside the county to make the project happen," Pendleton wrote. "On examination, it seems like the county will bear all the costs on building the facility, except operating costs, with very little in return."
Pendleton said the county would be better off doing the project "in-house," saying his foundation "can point you in the right direction for going after events that put 'heads in beds.' "
His organization is the official sports promotion and development organization for the state. It is a private, not-for-profit corporation operating under contract with the Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development in the governor's office.
"I wanted everyone to be aware ... that this was the position he took after looking at it," said Mariano.
Mariano has asked for Sportsplex's financial records going back 15 years, but company president Bill Berghoff said his accountant recommended they keep their reports for only three years. Pasco obtained additional records for the Sportsplex facility in Poway, Calif., as that city keeps six years of reports on file.
Mariano also questioned whether Sportsplex had been up front about its experience in working with hotels to coordinate visitors' stays. (It has a partnership only with one hotel.)
"I don't know if they're hiding something," said Mariano, who voted with his colleagues to hire Sportsplex to help find a site and plan the construction. "I don't feel nearly as comfortable."
Commissioner Michael Cox, who has visited the company's projects in California and returned with a positive report, lit into Mariano.
"I think you're casting aspersions that you should not be doing, to be quite blunt with you," said Cox.
"If you're against it, fine, you're against it," Cox told Mariano. "I just feel like you're calling into question their integrity, and I think that's wrong."
Mariano said he only brought the Pendleton e-mail to commissioners' attention because a Times reporter had made a public records request and he wanted to get ahead of the story.
In an interview outside of the meeting, Mariano said he thought the local leagues could get together and operate the facility, with the incentive that they would share in the concession or restaurant revenue.
He said he'd talked to some local league representatives in Hudson, and "they think I'm making sense."
Commissioner Pat Mulieri, though, questioned the wisdom of having multiple volunteer-based groups organizing tournaments and running the facility.
"Who's going to be in there balancing?" she said. "You want five, six, seven groups running this?"
The complex, which would have a mix of different sports fields, still has a ways to go. Sportsplex was hired only to aid with site selection and construction planning; an operating agreement for the facility would have to be worked out separately.
Sportsplex representatives will be in the county for two public hearings next week: Nov. 10 at the historic courthouse in Dade City, and Nov. 12 at the West Pasco Government Center in New Port Richey. Both are slated to run from 6:30 to 8 p.m.