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Prudence, not politics, should guide decision on location of sports complex

Commissioner Michael Cox is not an expert. Neither is Commissioner Pat Mulieri. Both confessed this publicly Tuesday morning when talking about amateur sports, field locations and public-private partnerships.

The candor was welcome. Pretending to be a know-it-all can be problematic at times.

Fear not. The commissioners needed to only look to the center of the dais for an authority on siting a proposed amateur sports complex. It is supposed to lure out-of-town visitors to regional and national tournaments, and to double as the weeknight home to the area's adult softball players.

Commission Chairman Jack (District 5) Mariano had his own thoughts on handing over the job of finding an appropriate location for the complex to some out-of-town consultants. Mariano said the commission should do the field (Engle Park) work. This is not about (Hudson) parochialism, Mariano told the commission. Just common sense (my district) to use the commission's own expertise.

Mariano's expertise — he moved to Pasco County about the same time Sportsplex USA began operating a government-owned sports complex near San Diego 15 years ago — led him to believe statements from "the people I've talked with'' that building anything smaller than eight fields is a waste of time.

Anyone notice Mariano also mentioned his excitement of an artist's rendering of expanding Engle Park to eight fields? Perhaps the first tournament can be a connect-the-dots competition.

The proposed venture calls for using tourism tax dollars to build a mix of athletic fields that will be operated and maintained by Sportsplex USA. No construction costs have been listed because much depends on whether the fields are built on publicly controlled land or whether the county has to buy additional property or acquire some by donation. The private company's profit margins come from food and beverage sales at the clubhouse/restaurant in the center of the complex. That makes adult league softball and its pre- and post-game socializing a key component.

One of its facilities in California consists of three softball fields and an area originally used for sand volleyball, but later was converted to roller hockey then to soccer rinks. Another will house three softball fields, and synthetic turf soccer fields and a football field.

The amenities of the Pasco park and its location are undetermined. That is part of the legwork assigned in the county's consulting agreement with Sportsplex USA. After a driving tour of the county Monday and a previous investigation in February that took in Trinity, Land O'Lakes, Wesley Chapel and Hudson, company chairman Bill Berghoff confessed "We didn't see a site that has any sizzle to it so far.''

Land along Interstate 75 or the Suncoast Parkway would be most ideal, Berghoff said. Unknowingly, by suggesting those two corridors, the consultant put the potential sites in every commission district but one — Mariano's District 5. The pending large-scale developments around the county — Bexley Ranch in Land O' Lakes, Starkey Ranch in Odessa, Wiregrass Ranch in Wesley Chapel — and their designated recreation space that could be tapped for this project also leave District 5 out of the mix.

Fifteen of the county's 37 existing parks have softball fields, but only one got more than a passing mention — Arthur F. Engle Memorial Park on Denton Avenue, in District 5, a location the consultants perceived as too remote to be successful.

That response likely led to the not-very-subtle lobbying from Mariano about where this proposed facility be located. Auburndale in Polk County is remote and its sports complex is a hit, Mariano argued. The comparison, however, is imprecise. That new $50 million facility is in the center of the state and its marketers tout its location within a 100-mile drive of 8 million people. Pasco's still wet-behind-the-ears sports tourism effort cannot match that capital investment nor the geography.

Criteria for picking a site should include proximity to transportation routes, access to Tampa International Airport, availability of nearby hotels and motels, and surrounding land uses. And even Mariano, to his credit, reluctantly recognized a key fact in voting to approve the consulting agreement:

It is unwise to include political jurisdictions on the criteria list.

Prudence, not politics, should guide decision on location of sports complex 08/11/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 11, 2009 6:01pm]
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