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Pasco commission must settle sports complex duel

For people intent on using sports marketing to attract tourists, Pasco commissioners show no sense of urgency to ever get into the game.

Tuesday, the Porter family, owners of Wiregrass Ranch in Wesley Chapel, threw commissioners a curve courtesy of a proposed 180-acre mega-sports complex that could have 32 sports fields, an adjoining lake for kayaking, bird-watching and other eco-tourism activities, and a nearby 300,000-square-foot ice hockey complex. The Porters want the county to invest with 40 acres of publicly owned land and an unspecified amount of tourist tax dollars.

The bedazzled commission responded by putting a hold on plans for a $12 million, five-field softball complex at the Starkey Ranch property in Odessa — a proposed public-private partnership in which Sportsplex USA of San Diego would operate the complex for local competitors on weeknights and then attract out-of-town players to weekend tournaments.

While the Porter proposal has an impressive list of amenities, the bells and whistles also raise the possibility, however remote, that the county would be partner in two sports complexes competing for the same pool of tournaments and visiting players.

For an easily distracted commission, it also could mean the death knell for the Starkey complex. Scrapping that Sportsplex USA proposal in Odessa, and an adjoining 40-acre facility meant exclusively for youth sports, carries significant reverberations:

• Trinity-area residents still would have no nearby district park for children — a deficit highlighted 10 years ago in a master plan for parks and recreation that became the precursor for charging a park impact fee on new homes.

• Plans to spend $2 million to turn J.W. Mitchell Park off Little Road into a soccer-only facility likely would be mothballed because that project is contingent on moving adult softball fields to Odessa.

• It could free up additional money for a passive park in Trinity, the land first identified as the best site for the Sportsplex, but scuttled by the commission amid neighborhood opposition to night-time events.

Therein lies a paradox and the attraction of the Sportsplex and Porter proposals. The commission says it can't afford $47,000 a year to maintain the passive recreation Trinity park, but will invest millions of construction dollars — via the tourist tax, impact fees, and even a past bond sale — in a privately run facility that does not carry a public operating subsidy.

Commissioners have talked about sports tourism for close to a decade and along the way have attempted but failed to negotiate contracts for a publicly built, but privately operated tennis stadium, lacrosse complex and softball fields.

Tuesday, they met in a workshop to set priorities for the county's parks and recreation needs, but left only with plans to ask Trinity residents to authorize a less expensive passive park and to meet again in 60 to 90 days after the Porter family offers up more details on their concept.

Whatever the outcome, the county should be seeking to expedite a decision in order to take full advantage of the favorable construction prices that abound.

Commissioners don't need more meetings. They need a shot clock.

Pasco commission must settle sports complex duel 01/19/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 19, 2011 6:59pm]
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