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Sports complex may be in Pasco

A Hillsborough County developer who in recent years has backed the creation of a complex near Ruskin for baseball, horse racing and sports medicine is bringing a similar idea to Pasco County. Joe Smith, president of the Tampa Bay Sports Consortium, plans to discuss his idea for the facility _ which would include a quarterhorse-racing track and a spring-training baseball stadium _ with the County Commission at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at the Pasco County Courthouse.

Smith said he is not looking for public funds, that he expects to use private money for everything but the baseball stadium, which the county already has considered building.

He said he also isn't seeking early commitments from commissioners. He said he wants only to gauge their interest in the project.

Smith said the consortium's exploration into Pasco is still preliminary, but he anticipates needing at least 400 acres within five miles of Interstate 75 for the project.

With its rolling hills and open pastures, East Pasco fits the horse-country image Smith wants for the project.

"There's no question, as I see it, that Pasco's the right place for this kind of project," he said.

No prospective sites have been identified, but Smith said he would be interested in acquiring the land for both the track and the stadium, as well as its related facilities.

Smith declined to identify the other members of the consortium, but described them as a "very small group of people who have a very unique networking ability."

"We have the links to the investors," he said.

Smith spent much of 1989 and 1990 exploring the possibility of developing a similar multi-use "SportsPlex" on a large tract of land near Interstate 75 in southern Hillsborough, but the idea never made it off paper.

Smith's interest in Pasco has caught the attention of some county officials who are interested in bringing Major League Baseball to the county.

"The horse people are extremely impressed with Pasco," Commission Chairman Mike Wells said after he and top county staff members met with Smith on Thursday. "Things are beginning to look up on this."

In recent weeks, county officials have sent letters to a variety of teams asking for a sign that they would seriously consider moving to the county. If a team states that it is interested, the county would begin to negotiate a deal and determine whether the move is practical.

County commissioners recently adopted a resolution indicating that they would be willing to pledge a significant portion of the tourist development tax to develop a spring training facility.

Approved in a referendum last November, the tax imposes a 2 percent surcharge on the price of motel rooms, hotel rooms and other short-term accommodations. It is expected to raise $456,000 annually.

Before any funds are committed, however, the county must change its tourist development plan by at least a four-fifths vote.