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Commission should approve draft management contract for tennis stadium

Pasco County first starting talking publicly about building a tennis stadium the same year Saddlebrook resident Jennifer Capriati won two grand slam events and Tampa worked hopefully toward landing the 2012 Olympic Games.

That was 2001. Capriati hasn't played competitively in nearly four years, the next Summer Olympics are headed to London and Pasco County is still talking about using tourist revenue to build a tennis stadium in Wesley Chapel.

The exhaustive talk finally is paying off. After a site switch, permitting questions, transportation logistics and intensive negotiations between the public and private partners in the venture, Pasco County and Saddlebrook are poised to ink a contract intended to have the 5,000-seat stadium and 15-court Pasco National Tennis Center open in two years. The advisory Tourist Development Council correctly approved the draft management contract last week and forwarded it to the County Commission for final consideration.

The extensive contract —the table of contents alone is five pages — includes substantial protections for the public in allowing Saddlebrook to operate the county-owned stadium and surrounding tennis center. To offset a potential for a public subsidy, Saddlebrook must post $500,000 in certificates of deposit and four condominiums, with an estimated current value of $150,000 each, as initial collateral. Saddlebrook Resort owner Tom Dempsey estimated annual operating costs at $175,000, which means his company is providing the equivalent of six years' worth of expenses at the outset of the contract.

"You're gold on that,'' Dempsey assured the Tourist Development Council about the substantial escrow provided.

Still, it is appropriate to see the gold spelled out in black and white as a way of easing taxpayer anxiety toward the project. Public liability for construction is capped at $7.9-million, with the money coming from the 2 percent surcharge on overnight accommodations that has been accumulating since voters approved the tourist tax in 1990. Saddlebrook is widely recognized as the largest generator of the tourist tax, providing about 40 percent of the annual proceeds to the county.

Critics of the tennis stadium, and there are plenty on the west side of the county, frequently fail to mention Saddlebrook's neighbors, the Porter family, donated the 24-acre tennis site valued at more than $3-million. It is an offer the county will be hard-pressed to match as it seeks a site for a future tourist project — a potential amateur baseball/softball complex.

When the donated land is added to the value of the tennis contract, it means the county is kicking in a maximum of 72 percent of the price of a publicly owned tourist venue with the private sector on the hook for cost overruns or operating deficits. The public share comes not from property taxes, but from tourist tax dollars, which by law can be used only to increase visitors to the county. That, too, is key. Some locals mistakenly believe the tourist tax dollars can be spent indiscriminately to benefit full-time residents.

The center won't be open to out-of-towners exclusively. It must be available, free of charge, for county-sponsored events a minimum of five times annually and six of the 15 courts will be open for public use at a rental fee to be determined. After an initial grace period, Saddlebrook is expected to schedule a minimum of three professional tournaments annually.

Though the county is expected to benefit from the stadium's regional and national exposure, and local residents will have a chance to play tennis or attend public functions there, the most tangible reward should be an economic bump from increased visitors to Wesley Chapel, providing additional tax revenue to finance other tourism ventures.

The commission should follow the advisory council's lead on the draft contract. The strained negotiations are complete and Dempsey is not an adversary on the other side of the net. Saddlebrook is now Pasco's doubles partner as it seeks increased tourist dollars for local coffers.

Commission should approve draft management contract for tennis stadium 08/11/08 [Last modified: Sunday, August 17, 2008 12:48pm]
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