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Pasco panel recommends proceeding on sports complex

NEW PORT RICHEY — Days after Pasco County employees learned their salaries could be frozen because of the economic crunch, top officials decided Friday to begin talks on building a sports complex that could cost upward of $30-million.

County officials say it could be a moneymaker in the long run, providing a place for youth and adult league tournaments and banquets that could drum up more revenue and tourist tax dollars for Pasco County.

Two companies pitching the park proposals say Pasco could get anywhere from $100,000 to $400,000 a year from events and the sale of hot dogs and even beer.

After reviewing the two proposals for more than six hours, a panel recommended that the county proceed with California-based Big League Dreams, which builds fields that mimic places like Boston's Fenway Park and Chicago's Wrigley Field.

The complex also could have soccer fields, restaurants and banquet facilities. But first the County Commission would have to sign off on the idea.

Under its general proposal, Big League would pay the county for the right to operate the park for 30 to 40 years. The county would provide the land — likely in Trinity or Wesley Chapel — and would pay to build the complex.

The money would come from the tourism tax paid by guests at Pasco hotels and impact fees paid by developers on new homes.

With property tax cuts and the sour economy putting a squeeze on the county, officials said they likely can't afford to build or run a major park any other way. Unlike property taxes, the tourist tax and impact fees cannot be used on salaries.

"If I could use tourism taxes or impact fees to give people raises, we wouldn't have spent six or seven hours together today," said County Commissioner Michael Cox, the leading advocate of the proposal and chairman of the seven-member panel.

He and other members, such as Chief Assistant County Administrator Michele Baker, noted Big League Dreams' potential financial power. The complex could be distinctive, providing more money to help pay for operating other county parks.

But Big League has also had some big cost overruns on other projects.

A complex in Las Vegas was pitched at $25-million, but city officials now expect to pay $36-million. In Gilbert, Ariz., the first estimate was $22-million, but ended up closer to $40-million. In Manteca, Calif., the project went from $11-million to more than $30-million over six years.

Big League Dreams chief executive Scott Parks LeTellier blamed most of the increase on expensive demands by local officials and the run-up in costs for construction materials. Company officials also said their sites bring in lots of money and positive attention to communities.

"Once you go to a Big League Dreams park, there's no place else to go," said Pat Kight, a consultant for the company.

But the cost is giving Pasco officials pause — prompting them to not rule out the other applicant, California-based Sportsplex USA.

Cox had previously pegged Pasco's cost for the complex at $15-million to $20-million. But he said the price of teaming with Big League now looks to be $25-million to $35-million. That's on the "edge" of Pasco's finances, he said.

Sportsplex USA is smaller than its competitor and doesn't do more expensive replica fields. It has four sites in various stages of development or operation; Big League Dreams has 14.

"We're not just going to do a cookie-cutter design and drop it in," said Sportsplex president Bill Berghoff, who argued that adult softball players don't show an interest in playing on replica fields.

Sportsplex had its own cost issues, too. A Santee, Calif., project was budgeted for $21.5-million, but the cost hit $27-million, causing the city and company to cut a field to get below budget, Berghoff said.

The cost and projected returns match the scale of the businesses — and Pasco officials were enticed by bigger returns.

Sportsplex officials suggested the county could receive $100,000 a year from them, while Big League Dreams suggested Pasco could generally get $400,000 annually. That's based on paying to operate the site, plus revenue from concession sales.

But Sportsplex wants a one-time $350,000 consulting fee, while Big League Dreams asked for a $750,000 fee, plus a $450,000 charge for licensing its name.

"We'll negotiate," Baker said.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6232.

Pasco panel recommends proceeding on sports complex 05/16/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 23, 2008 10:37am]
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