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Pasco approves sports complex

The Pasco County Commission endorsed a proposal Tuesday for a sports complex with a horse-racing track, Major League spring-training stadium and sports medicine facility in East Pasco. The idea is an outgrowth of recent discussions that the Pasco County Economic Development Commission and Committee of 100 have had about developing a horse-racing facility in Pasco.

Once business leaders began to think about combining the horse-racing project with the efforts to bring baseball to Pasco, they decided to call in Joe Smith, a Ruskin real estate broker who pursued a similar idea in southern Hillsborough County during the late 1980s.

"What we needed to do was talk to someone who had done it before," said Richard Lane, a West Pasco insurance executive who is chairman of the Committee of 100's baseball task force.

Smith formed the Tampa Bay Sports Consortium, a group of entrepreneurs interested in developing athletic facilities and known to the people who invest in such pro-jects.

Smith said the consortium is interested in building everything but the baseball stadium with money raised from private investors. The County Commission has indicated a willingness to pledge most of its tourist tax revenues to develop a spring-training camp and has invited a variety of teams to the bargaining table.

Smith expects that the project would be built within about five miles of Interstate 75. In its search for a site, the group would be considering tracts large enough for a spring-training baseball camp to be included as part of the project. Smith's group needs at least 400 acres for its project; the county estimates that it would need about 100 acres for spring training.

Smith asked commissioners for an indication that the county's planning and administrative staff would be available to work with the consortium as more definite plans for the sports complex began to take shape. He got that sign in the form of a unanimous resolution supporting the idea.

The consortium is interested in applying for a pari-mutuel racing license as soon as possible because the state law regulating pari-mutuel racing is scheduled to expire, or "sunset," at the beginning of 1992.

When that happens, Smith and other backers of a track in Pasco would not be surprised to see the lobbyists work on behalf of the pari-mutuel industry to ensure that no new tracks in Florida receive permits.

Although plans are tentative, they caught the attention of commissioners who are keenly interested in building Pasco's tax base.

"If and when it happens, it's going to have a major economic impact on an area that has been hurting as a result of loss of jobs," said Commissioner Ed Collins, who sponsored the resolution of support.

By building the horse-racing track and baseball stadium close together, the facilities could use the same parking lot and some of the same utilities, Collins said.

Land O'Lakes real estate broker Deloras Johnson told commissioners that everyone she has talked to about the sports complex has been interested in the project.

"I think we need to get behind this and really push," she said.