After countless disputes, millions in cost increases and almost six years of waiting, the future of Pasco County's tennis stadium seems bleak, County Commission Chairman Ted Schrader said.
"It's just looking less and less likely," Schrader said during an interview Friday with the Times.
The fate of the 5,000-seat stadium and its 14 other courts could be clearer Wednesday, when the Pasco Tourist Development Council takes up the project.
At issue is an operating contract for Saddlebrook golf and tennis resort to essentially run the $7.9-million stadium. Saddlebrook's top executive, Tom Dempsey, has long lobbied Pasco to build the complex.
If the council approves the plan, it sets up a final decision by the County Commission.
Dempsey strongly rejected Schrader's assessment, saying the deal appears "99.9 percent finished," and he is comfortable with it, except for minor details that could be changed.
"Somebody would have to be pretty stubborn for it not to get done," Dempsey said, adding Schrader has not been involved in negotiations.
County Administrator John Gallagher also said he is optimistic the stadium deal will be done. Commissioner Jack Mariano, a tourist board member, said most county staffers have signed off — a first that makes him hopeful, too.
But not Schrader, whose district includes the proposed site in Wesley Chapel.
"I'm really starting to have some real reservations, because it … seems like it's still tit for tat," Schrader said. "We tell Dempsey he needs to come up with this, and he says: 'No, that's not what we agreed upon.' "
Schrader, who has received $500 campaign donations from Dempsey and his wife, also questioned the interest in the stadium by Dempsey's possible successors at Saddlebrook.
Dempsey, 82, is chairman and chief executive of the family owned business. His son-in-law, executive vice president Gregory R. Riehle, 51, is considered a possible successor, Schrader said.
"My concern is that it's a passion of Mr. Dempsey, but I'm not sure it's a passion for his successors," Schrader said.
However, Dempsey said his successors — his wife and two daughters will have the voting stock — are on board. Riehle, general manager of the resort, has had no role in the tennis stadium, and Riehle is not a successor, Dempsey said.
"If they didn't have any interest in it, we wouldn't have done it in the first place," Dempsey said.
Pasco would use money from its tax on hotel stays to build the stadium on 24 acres donated by the Porter family, landowners behind the massive Wiregrass development.
Saddlebrook, nationally known as a tennis training destination, would be responsible for operating the complex with revenue from events.
But since the first commission approval in late 2002, disagreements over land, costs and how to operate the complex have slowed its creation.
In January, now-retired County Attorney Robert Sumner said a contract was 60 days away. In May, plans for the County Commission to solve differences were hatched and abandoned. Then plans for a special TDC meeting in July were scotched. That was after a $2.2-million cost increase that the commission backed in 2007, risks the Porters would not donate the land while Wiregrass was being approved and tie-ups over a permit to build on wetlands.
Critics doubt there's a market for the project and ripped it as a giveaway to help Saddlebrook's bottom line — and in 2002, it was narrowly approved over a multi-sport complex.
Now the multi-sport idea is back as a ballfield project spearheaded by Commissioner Michael Cox, a longtime critic of the tennis stadium. If approved, the ballfields could be built with tourism money, too.
Schrader, a Republican facing an Aug. 26 primary challenge against John Nicolette, said money for the tennis stadium could go to the ballpark.
"We need to be spending those dollars — we don't need to be continuing to bank those dollars," Schrader said. "At least we gave it our best shot with the tennis facility."
Gallagher — who recently took over county negotiations — said he became frustrated last month with a proposed deal that he said was "too one-sided." It lacked guarantees for events to pay for operations, and did little to force Saddlebrook to provide the county financial security if the resort went belly-up.
"It was a tennis stadium. They didn't have any guarantees they were going to have an any tennis events out there," Gallagher said.
The latest proposal would have Saddlebrook provide two $250,000 certificates of deposit and four condominiums in the resort if the county ends up having to pay for running the complex, Gallagher said.
The deal also would require Saddlebrook to attempt to land several major tennis events, though the resort also could use the complex for concerts and corporate events.
"I can't control what I don't own," Dempsey said.
But other disputes have been ironed out. Dempsey said a demand by the county for higher level events was shelved because the stadium will not seat 10,000.
But Gallagher said he is done working on the proposed deal. County attorneys were reviewing the contract Friday, but didn't return calls seeking comment. Dempsey, who had been out of town, also was still reviewing the latest version of the deal.
"Let me put it this way. Yeah, I'm optimistic. There wasn't any yelling at the last meeting," Gallagher said.
David DeCamp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6232.