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Wiregrass Ranch pitches new deal for Pasco County sports complex

In an effort to revive talks on a multimillion-dollar sports complex, the Porter family this week released a new proposal for the project at their Wiregrass Ranch development in Wesley Chapel.

Under their plan, the family would donate 200 acres in the heart of the development, along with fill dirt valued at $1 million. The county would build 12 multipurpose fields for lacrosse or soccer and eight baseball fields on the property using $14 million in tourist tax revenue and bond proceeds that county commissioners had already committed to the project.

The key change: The county would have to find an outside group to market the facility to regional tournaments and possibly maintain the grounds.

J.D. Porter called the offer "something that's trying to break the logjam" with the county after both sides stalled on negotiations over an operation and maintenance agreement. He said the plan keeps the integrity of the project intact while hopefully appeasing county officials.

"Pasco can't afford another failure," he said, alluding to more than a decade of talks to build some kind of tourism sports facility with hotel taxes. Previous ideas, such as a tennis stadium near Saddlebrook or a Sportsplex softball facility near Odessa, never came to fruition.

It's not clear how the county will react to the offer. Commissioners were split on the idea, and County Administrator John Gallagher said he hasn't studied the plan enough to know if it's a workable deal.

The plan came after the Porter family met with Commissioner Ted Schrader last week. He was bullish on the proposal.

"We welcome the opportunity to be able to pursue that endeavor," he said. "Developing a facility in the Tampa Bay region in the heart of a growing area is an opportunity that we just can't pass up."

Schrader said the county would need to attract a firm to promote the venue and schedule tournaments. But he said that wouldn't be a problem because the park would be at the "corner of Main and Main" in a desirable part of Wesley Chapel. Schrader said the county would be capable of maintaining the grounds, given that the complex would generate revenue from tournaments.

He said the county might also opt to find a company that would both operate and promote the complex.

But Commissioner Jack Mariano said the new deal is a major departure from the original proposal that called for the Porter family to design, build and operate the complex.

"They've completely changed from that," he said. "To me, we start all over."

Noting the county recently implemented parking and youth sports fees at many county parks, Mariano said he is not willing to put Pasco on the hook for operations costs if the complex doesn't generate enough revenue to cover expenses. "I'm very uncomfortable with that."

Both Commissioners Ann Hildebrand and Pat Mulieri said they haven't had time to study the Porters' proposal. But Mulieri said she hopes that a park is built at Wiregrass, which she called the perfect location.

"Hillsborough now has three complexes on board," she said, referring to a proposal floated last week by Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan. "We just look like we can't get it done."

The Porters' offer calls for the county to maintain the sports complex for at least 20 years. The park's name would have to include both "Pasco County" and "Wiregrass." The $14 million in tax money set aside for the project could not be spent elsewhere until the park is built.

The complex would be designed to host regional or national soccer, lacrosse, baseball or softball tournaments. Each set of fields would include one "championship" field, and all would have lighting and seating. Other amenities would include concession stands, restrooms and a network of trails.

The county would have to begin construction within a year of acquiring the land and would have 18 months to finish the park.

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

Wiregrass Ranch pitches new deal for Pasco County sports complex 10/23/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 23, 2012 8:51pm]
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