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Sports complex plan requires measured response from Pasco

On the eve of the World Series opener, Pasco County commissioners took a curve ball.

No surprise, really. They already had been tipped to the approaching pitch from the Porter family's lawyer, but they received it formally on Tuesday.

It's a significant deviation from the original plan of Pasco County committing $14 million to the Porters to design, build and operate a 20-field tournament-caliber sports complex on 160 acres of Wiregrass Ranch land that the family would sign over to public ownership.

The message now from the private sector to the county government?

You do it.

And, you better do it quickly.

The Porters want an answer on Nov. 7. They want the real estate deal closed by Nov. 16. They want construction started in a year and to be completed within 18 months.

What they want to do is donate the land to the county and they'll throw in fill dirt. The county then must promise to spend $14 million on the Wiregrass site, essentially building the same complex the Porters had proposed: 12 fields suitable for soccer/lacrosse/football and eight diamonds for baseball and softball. Two would be stadium caliber and all of them would have lights and bleacher seating. The project must include concessions and paved parking. And, if it doesn't work, the Porters get to take back the land.

One hundred and sixty acres is a sizeable contribution to the public, but, let's face it, the Porters aren't in much of a position to be making demands.

They first pitched their land as a sports tourism site in January 2011 while the county was negotiating with another company to build a smaller-scale softball complex in west Pasco. That company, Sportsplex USA of San Diego, walked away when the attention-challenged commissioners set their sights on the Porter proposal.

Later, the Porters tied their tourism project to requested concessions from the county on the development rules for the rest of the Wiregrass Ranch's residential and commercial projects. It only served to deflate commission enthusiasm.

So, the county has $14 million for construction, but no dollars to run more parks. The Porters have real estate, but don't want to absorb all the financial risk, either. What they need, if this is to work, and that is a big if, is a third party to build and run the place. Or, at least manage the facility (translation: be on the hook for future operation and maintenance expenses) if the county agrees to oversee construction.

The most immediate obstacle are the deadlines. The county must again seek private-sector proposals from vendors who could design, build and operate 20 sports fields envisioned by somebody else. That will take time. Perhaps a long time. Hernando County recently asked for private proposals to develop public land adjoining 100-acres of athletic fields and amenities at Anderson Snow Park, just north of the county line and west of the Suncoast Parkway. It drew no interest.

There also is the a matter of cost. The Porters originally planned a 13-field, $25 million complex but later amended the proposal to 20 fields on more acres. How can the county commit to paying to build this more expensive version with no cost projections of its own?

There is some sense of urgency from multiple interests. Nov. 7 is the final commission meeting for Commissioner Ann Hildebrand who has served 28 years, including all 21 years the county has been accumulating its tourist tax kitty from a 2 percent surcharge on overnight accommodations.

You think Wiregrass supporters want to avoid having Hildebrand's successor make the decision? One of the candidates running for her District 3 commission seat is Kathryn Starkey, whose family was left at the altar last year when Sportsplex USA bowed out of building and operating a complex on the Starkey Ranch in the Trinity/Odessa area. Starkey advocates for more youth athletic fields for the west side of the county, but she said this week that luring a tourism project back to west Pasco is not her goal.

"I am supportive of finally getting a deal done in this county,'' she said. "I think it's a black eye to this county that we can't get a private-public partnership done.''

A sense of urgency also comes from Hillsborough County budgeting $15 million for a similar tournament-caliber sports complex and a proposal from one commissioner there to establish three separate venues for athletic competitions.

I've criticized the Pasco commission in the past for its inability to reach a consensus on sports tourism. The poor treatment accorded Sportsplex USA, in particular, was embarrassing. But this newest proposal is a problematic game-changer even if county officials are hopeful a deal can be completed.

So, is the commission supposed to treat Nov. 7 as if it's the ninth inning of game seven of the World Series?

Due diligence should require extra innings. It would be a mistake to expedite an answer just because one of the players is leaving the game. Unless, of course, the answer is "no.''

Sports complex plan requires measured response from Pasco 10/27/12 [Last modified: Saturday, October 27, 2012 11:00am]
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