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It's unwise for Pasco to spend millions on lacrosse fields

An English professor at my alma mater had a notorious reputation for his stern grading habits. The joke among the undergraduates was that he tossed the students' writing compositions up in the air and the only papers to earn an A were the ones that stuck to the ceiling.

I'm starting to believe that is the County Commission's philosophy for investing Pasco's tourist tax dollars. Throw all the ideas up in the air and the best one will defy gravity and stick to the ceiling.

In a matter of five weeks, Pasco County commissioners individually or collectively and their constituents have proposed to build: a softball complex in Trinity; multiple, identical complexes in Trinity and in Wesley Chapel; a significantly larger sports edifice in Hudson; and now a combination of lacrosse and professional soccer practice fields at county-owned land in close proximity to Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel.

This comes after a tentative deal and eight-year quest to build a tennis stadium on that same land near Saddlebrook fell apart. Let's not forget the once-promising idea of replicating the appearance of historic major league stadiums for amateur baseball and softball. There also was (and still is presumably, since nothing seems off the table) a suggestion of making another stab at spring training baseball.

Commissioners have said sports marketing is to be the key to building Pasco's tourism industry, but the most notable sport has been chasing away potential suitors.

The commission or its staff have butted heads with Tom Dempsey of Saddlebrook and the Big League Dreams team over finances and now the board's indecisiveness coupled with Commissioner Jack Mariano's all-roads-lead-to-Hudson thinking brought a rebuke and resignation from the Sportsplex USA consultant working on the Trinity softball proposal.

Mariano is now catering to Dempsey and his new pitch for lacrosse/soccer fields. The successful Dick's Sporting Goods Tournament of Champions at the Wesley Chapel District Park last weekend has Dempsey's team thinking of adding lacrosse fields at the county site near Saddlebrook to head off the potential for the tournament to outgrow its Wesley Chapel home.

The Saddlebrook fields also could double as a training site for the soon-to-be playing Tampa Bay Rowdies professional soccer team of the United Soccer League, a newly formed Division 2 league that is a notch below Major Soccer League.

In other words, this is a proposal is to spend an estimated $5 million to build fields to serve a once-a-year, three-day lacrosse tournament and to be the practice site for a second-tier soccer team that is expected to play its actual games in another county. It's akin to blowing millions for practice fields for a minor league baseball affiliate that will play its competitive games in Hillsborough and then open it up for a once-a-year high school tournament that already exists in Pasco County.

This isn't heads in beds. This is heads in sand.

It's a money grab by Saddlebrook — somewhat understandable considering the revenue it generates in tourist tax dollars — and naivete by Mariano for carrying it forward. Although, I suspect he likes that it would use less than half of the $11.5 million of available tourism money, leaving enough cash to start another project. Perhaps even one at Arthur Engle Field in Hudson?

If nothing else, this ridiculous plan illustrates the absence of institutional knowledge of Pasco County. For starters, the county-owned and recently expanded Land O'Lakes Recreation Complex has eight fields available for the lacrosse tournament to use. It's a short drive from Wesley Chapel (and its hotels) and using multiple sites for a single tournament is nothing new. There is no need for the county to absorb a multimillion-dollar expense to cater to the Dick's Sporting Goods tournament.

Those same Land O'Lakes fields also have played host to Major League Soccer. The Tampa Bay Mutiny, a major league team that folded in 2001, held its preseason training in Land O'Lakes in 1999 and also played some exhibition games there including one to benefit a local food bank. If the fields there were good enough for Major League Soccer, they — or an existing public facility — should suffice for a lowered-tiered team. Spending millions for new practice fields just doesn't make economic sense and certainly won't generate overnight stays for Pasco's hotels.

When discussing tourism promotion, commissioners must be cautious not to over react to an emotional plea citing the growing national popularity of lacrosse and the pending boom in soccer excitement from a USL team in Tampa Bay and even the 2010 World Cup this summer in South Africa.

I'm a soccer dad and a sports fan, but I've never seen a soccer or lacrosse ball stick to the ceiling.

It's unwise for Pasco to spend millions on lacrosse fields 01/09/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 9, 2010 10:36am]
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