The Pasco National Tennis Center has doubled-faulted; its demise attributed to the public and private sectors' inability to agree on covering operating expenses at the $7.9 million stadium that had been planned for Wesley Chapel.
County Administrator John Gallagher correctly tried to protect the public's interests so the county wouldn't be stuck with subsidizing maintenance costs if it ran in the red, or worse, mothballing the stadium adjacent to the Saddlebrook Resort. Meanwhile, Tom Dempsey, the resort's owner, told Times staff writer Lisa Buie he could not stomach the liability "the county insisted on shoving on us.''
The discord comes nine months after the two sides supposedly settled on a contract intended to have a 5,000-seat stadium and 15-court tennis center open in 2010. Under the terms, the county would own the stadium and Saddlebrook would have run it. The draft agreement called for Saddlebrook to escrow the equivalent of six years' worth of operating costs via a $500,000 certificate of deposit and four condominiums valued at $150,000 each as collateral. That deal, approved by the Tourist Development Council, never did reach the commission dais because of continued negotiations.
Coincidence or not, Dempsey walked away from the project he had sought for eight years on the eve of a commission discussion on increasing the tourist tax to 3 percent from 2 percent. Dempsey is no fan of a higher bed tax, saying it could hurt his resort bookings. Regardless, commissioners Tuesday voted 4-1, with Ted Schrader dissenting, to support increasing the tax to make more money available for sports marketing. It is a wise investment in the county's tourism promotional efforts.
Pasco has 2,574 motel rooms on 33 properties and the higher tax on overnight accommodations is expected to generate an additional $370,000 annually. It will not put the county's motels at a competitive disadvantage. A 3 percent rate matches the charge in Hernando and Citrus counties, and is less than the 5 percent tourist tax charged in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Polk counties. A public hearing and final vote are scheduled for later this year.
While the tennis stadium is a missed opportunity, commissioners didn't take long to focus their energies elsewhere. Specifically, $7.9 million is now unencumbered and available for other tourist-related construction projects, the most likely being a multipurpose sports venue. It could be used to attract amateur soccer, baseball and other team sports competitions, participants of which routinely help fill hotels during weekend tournaments.
In approving the resolution for the higher tourist tax, Commissioner Michael Cox noted the county would likely need to borrow money to complete the complex and the proceeds from the higher tax could help pay off the debt. (The tennis stadium had been planned for donated land, but no such multimillion-dollar offer has emerged for the multisports facility.)
Commissioners are correct to remain enthusiastic about using sports to bring more visitors into the county for overnight stays, meals in local restaurants and other opportunities for commerce. They'll just need equipment other than a tennis racquet to do it.