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Saddlebrook idea sidetracks Pasco's sports-tourism push

Pasco County's sports-tourism push is in danger of developing into little more than an expensive version of the shiny penny syndrome. Commissioners' short attention spans are threatening their credibility with the private sector.

Tennis. Softball. Soccer. Lacrosse. Wesley Chapel. Trinity. Hudson. Odessa. Wiregrass Ranch.

Pick a sport and a location and somebody has favored the idea of investing Pasco's millions of dollars in unspent tourist tax revenue into a stadium/complex to attract out-of-town visitors. Unfortunately, the list of ideas and sites has yet to yield a finished product after more than a decade of discussions and 22 years of charging a 2 percent tax on overnight accommodations.

The most recent distraction came last week from Saddlebrook Resort, which, for the second time, suggested a lacrosse complex on county-owned land adjoining the tennis and golf resort in Wesley Chapel. It is the same 40-acre parcel once envisioned as home to a tourist-tax financed tennis stadium that failed to materialize when Saddlebrook and the county could not agree to contract terms for privately operating a publicly owned facility.

Resort owner Tom Dempsey later told Times staff writer Lee Logan he sent his pitch to the county at the suggestion of a county commissioner. That makes this an individual commissioner's clumsy negotiating ploy, a blatant attempt to sabotage another pending proposal or the most ill-timed Plan B ever devised. Dempsey did not identify the meddling commissioner.

The Saddlebrook plan comes as the county is negotiating with the Porter family to develop a nearby 13-field center at Wiregrass Ranch for lacrosse, soccer and other uses to attract amateur and youth sports tournaments. It also is problematic because Saddlebrook did not respond last fall when the county solicited private-sector proposals for sports-tourism projects. A late entrant to the game should not be rewarded.

That didn't stop Commissioner Jack Mariano's misguided endorsement for the Saddlebrook plan, saying it could parallel the Wiregrass complex and meet field requirements contained in the county's new sponsorship agreement for a national lacrosse tournament. It illustrates a severe problem in the county's tourism marketing — a commission that can't stick to its prior consensus.

Mariano's unbridled enthusiasm is reminiscent of the same gushing he and others showered on the Porters' original, unsolicited idea in January 2011 that came while the county tried to finish the details on a softball complex on the Starkey Ranch. In that instance, the private vendor, Sportsplex USA from San Diego, read the handwriting on the wall and walked away from Pasco. A repeat would be foolish.

Commissioner Ted Schrader and the county's legal staff correctly reined in Mariano, pointing out the Saddlebrook idea sidesteps state purchasing laws and also targets a piece of land that likely would be needed to complete an agreement with the Porters.

The commission needs to allow its staff to negotiate in good faith. Setting a supposed firm 60-day deadline to reach an agreement with the Porter family is logical and establishes a sense of urgency that has been missing in the past.

Perhaps a running clock will allow the easily distracted commission to maintain its focus on completing its sports-tourism marathon.

Saddlebrook idea sidetracks Pasco's sports-tourism push 03/28/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 28, 2012 6:21pm]
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