ARIPEKA — Jack Mariano squeezed past a huge metal gate blocking off the county's portion of the old SunWest mine, and walked down an old dirt road, past some bushes toward a pair of aquamarine lakes.
The aquifer-fed lakes were formed by years of limestone mining and have long attracted people who want a quick dip in cool water — even if the site is technically off-limits to visitors. Mariano came across three swimmers walking back to their car.
"You guys having a good time?" he asked, smiling.
Of course they were. Have you seen these lakes?
Those sparking waters are Mariano's trump card in upcoming talks about future county parks. For more than five years, the northwest Pasco commissioner has been a full-throated champion of the planned county park and adjoining mega-development at SunWest. And he's lobbying fellow commissioners to pack the park with amenities using the county's hottest commodity: $11.4 million in tourist tax money.
There are, of course, objections. The property is tucked in a remote corner of the county, far from the hopping State Road 54 corridor. Like many areas in a down economy, northwest Pasco's commercial fronts have their share of empty buildings. And don't forget environmental concerns that the development could harm bears and sea grasses.
But have you seen these lakes?
They can make you wonder whether you're still in Pasco and not somewhere in the Caribbean.
"You've got this amazing asset sitting out here, doing nothing," Mariano said.
Patrick Panakos of the Orlando-based Wake Park Project has offered to team up with the county on the park. The company builds cable-based courses that allow people to wakeboard without using a boat. Most courses are in Europe, though there are about 10 in the United States, including one in Fort Lauderdale that hosted 4,500 people for the "Wake of Fame" event in December.
Panakos said he expects enough demand to support the operation if the county provides the land — and the lake. Mariano wants to add more features at the park with tax money, which would attract more visitors to the wake park and increase the county's share of profits.
"It'll definitely work for a cable park," Panakos said. "It's a no-brainer for us."
Now add a couple of man-made beaches on the north and south ends of the lake and a boardwalk with restaurants that face the sunset. Maybe some volleyball courts set up in the water. And there would be 250 boat parking spaces near an expanded channel to the gulf. "You give the whole family a variety of things to do," Mariano said.
Commissioner Ann Hilde-brand said SunWest has a "tremendous amount of potential." But she's not sure about the tourist draw.
"The waterski thing is kind of a cool idea," she said. "But I don't think it's going to bring the Jones family from Pittsburgh. It'll be local traffic."
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SunWest is only one of three major sites county officials are considering for a future park. Because budget cuts strain maintenance at existing parks, all three proposals involve partnerships with private entities.
The Starkey family proposes a mix of county-owned baseball and soccer fields that could be used for tournaments and public use. They would sit next to a private recreation center, skate park and cycling track. The site, on the family's ranch near Odessa, would have a similar wake park on a smaller lake. Foot traffic from the county-owned portion would help support the private efforts. In turn, those companies would maintain the county fields to save money in the parks department.
The Porters want to build a 160-acre ballfield complex nestled near the future town center of the family's Wiregrass development. A quarter of the site would be county owned. The site would be focused on bringing dozens of youth sports tournaments, though it would have some level of public use. The deal would mean the county gives up 80 more acres for a second park in a less desirable part of the development.
Hildebrand said it's too early to know if the county can build all three sites. The companies still have a few more weeks to make formal proposals about how each park would look and how much tax money they would need. In addition to tourist taxes, the county can build — but not operate — parks using $7.5 million in sales tax proceeds and $20 million in impact fees.
Hildebrand said the Starkey site fulfills a key goal in the parks department's long-term plan.
"They always said there would be a regional park in west Pasco," she said. Combined with a smaller future park in Trinity, the Starkey park "would serve local kids as well as tournaments for people coming from out of the area."
Commissioner Ted Schrader said he's keeping an open mind on the sites, though he's "anxiously awaiting" a proposal on the Wiregrass park. That development now includes a popular outdoor shopping mall and is cleared for a new hospital and a new campus for Pasco-Hernando Community College.
"It just seems like there will be an abundance of activity in that area," he said. "There are great possibilities to partner with the private sector on naming rights, and other opportunities."
Haggling over different sites could be a familiar replay of the Sportsplex discussion, when commissioners spent months to decide that Starkey Ranch would house the project. The deal fell through in March when the California-based company pulled out of talks. It cited indecision by commissioners on the scope of the project, the location and other contractual issues.
"I'm a little bit concerned about spreading some of our interests too broad," Schrader said.
Lee Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.