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Costs temper Pasco's talk of spring training

Signs of spring may be hard to come by in Florida, but a sure harbinger of the season has emerged in Pasco: Business and government officials are again talking about the chances of attracting a Major League Baseball team for spring training. Such talk has been commonplace for at least three or four years, but attitudes are tempered with a new moderation in 1990.

Gone is the optimism of 1988, when a deal appeared imminent, and the pessimism of last year, when plenty of people figured there was as much chance of Pasco attracting a team for the regular season as for spring training.

"Our talks are ongoing and likely will continue to be," said Paul Griffin, executive director of the Pasco Committee of 100. "Nobody that we talked to has a real hard time frame for making a move."

Griffin is undaunted by the current status of spring training, in which baseball's owners have locked the players out of spring training camps until the two groups can agree to a new labor contract.

He still plans to attend the Governor's Baseball Dinner on March 1 in St. Petersburg.

Florida's annual salute to baseball should provide the perfect opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the executives responsible for relocations.

Three teams are on the county's list of potential relocations, according Griffin, who has acted as the county's liaison to baseball for several years. He would say only that two of the teams play in Florida and the third plays in Arizona.

One of the Florida teams is interested in moving only if it cannot work out a good deal at its existing site, but the other two are involved in more serious shopping, Griffin said.

The prospects also are not entirely new, but he said those that are returning to look at Pasco are expressing more interest than they have in several years.

Baseball romance

This renewed interest is only the latest upswing in Pasco's stormy romance with spring-training baseball.

In 1987, the County Commission unanimously adopted a resolution expressing its interest in, support for, and willingness to help develop a baseball stadium and training area in Pasco. The resolution followed a disclosure by a market research consultant that Pasco was among six areas he was scouting for a major-league ball club looking for a new spring-training home.

Later that year Pasco became aggressive, putting together a marketing proposal that outlined demographics, the facilities the county would build for spring training and four possible sites for a baseball complex. The proposal was given to six teams rumored to be looking for new homes.

In 1988, the Committee of 100 formalized its pursuit of a team by establishing a Baseball Task Force. The county toyed with the idea of putting on a high-profile old-timers game as a test of enthusiasm for baseball, but the plans fizzled because the game would have cost too much.

The same factor that halted plans for that single game, money, has helped diminish the county's enthusiasm for baseball in general. Every time the prospect is discussed, so is Pasco's ability to raise the money that would be needed to attract a team.

"The problem that occurred the last time we talked seriously about baseball was not that they wanted a stadium built for nothing. You could wrestle with that," said County Administrator John Gallagher. "But they also wanted 200 acres of land around the stadium donated by the county and that was a bit much."

Baseball money

Spring training is so attractive to the county because of the money it would generate. The state Department of Commerce estimates that a spring training site pumps $16.5-million into a community every year, but most of that money goes to local businesses, with only a portion trickling into county coffers through taxes.

Without counting on additional sales tax, Pasco could find a new revenue source in a tourist development tax that now is being discussed by the County Commission.

County Administrator John Gallagher estimates that the 1-cent or 2-cent tax on overnight tourist accommodations could raise $450,000 a year, which could be bonded out over 30 years to raise $3-million for a stadium.

Griffin estimates that a sufficient spring training complex could easily cost twice that much, but said the county might be able to cover the additional cost from concessions or a lease.

Adding to cost concerns is the spring training lockout and the increasingly roving eyes of many teams. Griffin is not willing to discount the possibility that Pasco could lose a team before paying off the bonds or lose anticipated revenue through another labor dispute.

The possibility that the county would have to dip into some other source of tax revenue tempers his enthusiasm.

"There is a point at which it is not worth it, and I think that depends on each individual community," said Griffin. "You have to look at it like a pure business decision. You have to sit down and look at the numbers. ... I would rather have another sewer plant, I would rather have another elementary school, I would rather have expanded capacity at PHCC (Pasco-Hernando Community College), in terms of the ability that gives us to attract new business."

Almost as big a concern as cost is location. Not only would Pasco need a stadium site, but also in some cases teams are looking for sweetheart land deals that include hundreds of developable acres around their stadiums.

Griffin has talked with many major landowners and found them very reluctant to give away their land, although there has been some willingness to discuss joint venture development with a baseball team.

Optimistically, he points out that teams have resumed conversations with Pasco, knowing that a land giveaway is unlikely. But he also said he will not even return to the landowners unless a baseball team enters into substantial negotiations with the county.

Among the locations frequently targeted, Wesley Chapel around Interstate 75 and State Road 54, stands out because of its accessibility, proximity to population and open land.

One of the major landowners in the area, Pittway Real Estate Inc., would love to see a spring training site nearby, but vice president Harry Rice said he will not be putting up the land for a ball park.

"In the Zephyrhills area and Wesley Chapel there are a lot of people that would fill up that spring training camp," Rice said. "I think they're a fun thing, but as far as Pittway having any land that we would designate, we just have not thought seriously about that. It would be almost impossible because we've tied up our land with certain of our own projects."