Saturday, May 26, 2018
News Roundup

Wiregrass officials: County pushing a bad deal on sports complex

Negotiations seem to be souring on the multimillion-dollar sports complex in Wesley Chapel's Wiregrass development.

Why?

According to Wiregrass representatives, it's because the county is pushing a bad business deal that would force the company to take on all of the project's risks without sharing the benefits.

"We take one step forward and end up taking five steps backward every time," Wiregrass lawyer Bill Merrill said of months-long talks with county officials.

J.D. Porter, whose family owns the development, added: "Each time we have given a little bit to really make the county stand out, they . . . turn away all of the stuff that makes this a doable deal."

In April, commissioners approved plans for the 200-acre Fields at Wiregrass, which would have eight baseball and softball fields and a dozen multipurpose fields for soccer or lacrosse. County officials then began negotiating with the Porter family to write an operation and maintenance agreement for the complex.

Talks were on a low boil for months but burst into the open this week when Merrill told an assistant county attorney that the county might have to find a new company to run the park if it is sticking to its version of the operation agreement. The family would still donate land for the park if the county remained committed to spending $14 million in tourism and sales taxes to build the facility.

Here's how Merrill explained his stance Wednesday: "If that's the direction it's going to go — if it's getting further away rather than closer to resolution — maybe you guys need to think of another plan for your operation and maintenance."

Porter and Merrill cited several problems with the county's proposed contract. Porter said the family needs control over scheduling at the park to ensure it attracts enough tournaments. The latest offer gives scheduling power to the county.

Merrill said the county asked for up to 8 percent of revenues even though the family would run the park, "free of charge with no risk" to the county. He said the proposal also gives the county control over naming rights, marketing and design.

"We are unwilling to agree to such an onerous operation and maintenance agreement," he said. "It's not fair and it's all one sided in favor of the county."

County Administrator John Gallagher said he is waiting for the Porters to put their objections in writing.

"I want a response before we have a meeting," he said. "Then we have a chance to analyze what they're going to say so we can have a beneficial meeting."

Merrill said the two sides have such deep disagreements about the contract that it won't help to continue trading drafts back and forth.

"We need to sit down and meet eyeball to eyeball and say, 'Here's where this needs to go,' " he said. "We certainly need to break through the ice on this and see if there is something that can work out. If not, we need to look at other alternatives that would make sense for the county and the Porters."

Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.

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