Friday, February 23, 2018
Editorials

Pasco should walk away from Porter family partnership

Pasco County could be looking for a new teammate as it seeks to expand its position amid sports tourism attractions. Tuesday, the county revealed its designated playing partner, the Porter family of Wesley Chapel, sought to change the rules amid negotiations for a multimillion-dollar sports complex on the Porters' Wiregrass Ranch development.

The county already pledged $14 million for the planned construction of 20 athletic fields on 200 acres. As proposed originally, the Porters would be responsible for design, construction, operation and maintenance of the fields as a tournament-caliber facility to draw youth and amateur athletes and their families for overnight stays in Pasco County.

This week, however, an attorney for the Porters proposed a much different scenario. The family would donate the land if the county would commit to pay for construction and not earmark its tourism dollars elsewhere. But, the Porters want to drop their obligation for design, construction and operations. In other words, they want the facility within their Wiregrass Ranch project — and the accompanying benefits of the ancillary economic development that will follow — but without the financial responsibilities that come with building and operating the complex.

Finding a third party to operate the facility would be a hard sell, particularly after the Porters previously estimated annual maintenance costs as high as $900,000. The proposal is not in writing, so the county was reserved in its response. As suggested, however, the new plan virtually severs the county's ties with the Porter family and will require the County Commission to again advertise for a sports tourism partner.

In essence, the Porters' position mirrors the county's. Pasco has construction money — $14 million in unspent tourism tax revenue and proceeds from a past bond sale — but no way to pay for ongoing operations and maintenance of a new sports facility/tourist attraction. The Porters' new offer illustrates the family's real estate assets, but also an unwillingness to absorb the financial risk of construction cost overruns and ongoing operations.

If this is a negotiating ploy, it has been received poorly. If it's a final offer, even though J.D. Porter characterized the family's proposal in April as ''all in,'' then Pasco County must walk away and start over in its quest for a sports tourist project worthy of a public investment.

The county has pinpointed sports tourism as a way to lure visitors to county hotels, restaurants, stores and other businesses. For the past decade, Pasco has unsuccessfully sought a private-sector partner to operate such a facility with various discarded proposals ranging from a tennis stadium to a softball complex. The new suggestion from the Porters' attorney could rightfully add the Fields at Wiregrass Ranch to that list of failed ideas.

Playing ball with a private partner is one thing. Asking the public to assume a potential financial beating on that partner's behalf is quite another.

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