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With a contract with Pasco, California's Sportsplex lines up other potential customers in Florida

Last week, after a Pasco County Commission meeting that didn't go as they hoped it would, officials from Sportsplex USA held what one later called a "very constructive meeting" with a county commissioner.

That commissioner was not from Pasco.

She was Orange County Commissioner Mildred Fernandez, who chatted with the company about preliminary plans to build a sports complex on a 200-acre site in that county, Sportsplex president Bill Berghoff said.

"She's a big proponent of public private partnerships," he said in a recent interview. "She gets it."

Hired in August to help build a multisports facility in Pasco County, officials with the California-based Sportsplex are simultaneously hoping to break into the rest of the Florida market.

So far, the company has spoken with officials in at least two counties, Orange and Manatee.

Sportsplex sent its company materials and a Pasco County news release about the partnership here to all the counties in Florida, Berghoff said.

Under its four-phase contract with Pasco, a handful of surrounding counties are off limits for Sportsplex: Polk, Hernando, Hillsborough, Pinellas and Sumter.

The firm set up an appointment with the Orange County commissioner last week since officials had to be in the area, anyway, for the Pasco meeting, said Berghoff.

Pasco tourism manager Eric Keaton said he didn't know about the firm's hunt for other projects until someone from the Orange County commissioner's office called his office Dec. 1, trying to reach the Sportsplex officials.

Not long after that, Keaton got a call from Manatee County officials. They had been contacted by Sportsplex, which had listed him as a reference.

Pasco County is not paying for Sportsplex officials' flight tickets to Florida, Keaton said.

But the company is under a $270,000 contract with the county and is currently on the first phase — site selection — which makes up about $60,000.

So, in Orange County, for instance, would the company be working on a project that might compete with Pasco's facility for major sports tournaments?

"It's far too early to decide that," said Berghoff, noting Sportsplex's two facilities in San Diego County stay busy — and they are less than 20 miles apart.

Last Tuesday, Pasco commissioners held off voting on the company's recommendation to build the complex on 24 acres of county-owned property in Trinity. The project, estimated at $11-million, would be paid for with tourist tax revenue.

Chairwoman Pat Mulieri and commissioner Ted Schrader asked for the company to flesh out its rationale for selecting the Trinity site, and Sportsplex agreed to put together more information on the engineering constraints of the other sites.

Commissioner Jack Mariano, a frequent critic of the Sportsplex proposal, wanted the company to further research how many tournaments would participate if there were only four baseball/softball fields as Sportsplex has recommended. The company declined to do that research.

Commissioner Michael Cox did not have a problem with Sportsplex officials hunting for other work in Florida. That's how private enterprise works, he said.

"I think they're business people and they're looking to expand their business," Cox said. "If I was going to fly across country, I wouldn't hesitate to kill two birds with one stone."

Schrader said he wasn't concerned about Sportsplex working on a project in Orange County. But Manatee, which shares more characteristics with Pasco, could prove to be competition for sports tournaments, he said.

"Orange County doesn't bother me as much as Manatee," he said.

Mariano said he figured the firm wanted to break into the Florida market. He said he thinks the consultant should research the questions he asked them "before they start running down the road to deal No. 2."

Last week, commissioner Ann Hildebrand said she had heard Sportsplex was talking to Orange County and didn't fault the firm for wanting to check it out.

"They'll go where the welcome mat is," she said.

In Manatee County, officials have been approached not only by Sportsplex but by two other similar consultants for a potential project, which most likely would be located off Interstate 75, said Sharon Kingston, sales manager for Bradenton Area Convention and Visitor's Bureau.

"We're certainly very interested in expanding our sports facilities," she said.

She said Manatee's sports commissioner spoke with Pasco tourism manager Keaton about Sportsplex. Keaton did not give a strong opinion either way since the Pasco project is still in its first phase, she said.

"He's not saying yet," she said.

One big difference from Pasco? Manatee's pot of tourist tax money is dried up, so the county would likely pay for such a facility through general fund revenue or bonding, she said.

"Pasco has been saving for 18 years," she said, referring to the years the county has been collecting the tourist tax, "and we had not."

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

With a contract with Pasco, California's Sportsplex lines up other potential customers in Florida 12/08/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 8, 2009 8:29pm]
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