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County might request review of tennis project

A proposed multimillion-dollar tennis stadium is once again in the Pasco County commissioners' court.

Sitting atop a $6-million pile of hotel tax money they can spend only on tourism, commissioners have delayed dealing with the stadium for months, sidetracked by the county's budget and the Sept. 11 terrorism.

The delays could end at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday in Dade City, when commissioners meet at the historic courthouse to consider whether to order a study from consultant KPMG outlining the financial pluses and minuses of a tennis stadium in Wesley Chapel.

That's not the only option: commissioners could follow the lead of the county's Tourist Development Council, which recommended in August that Pasco investigate not just a stadium but a concert amphitheater.

But odds favor a tennis-only option. At a meeting last month, Commissioners Pete Altman and Steve Simon, who have been the most vocal tennis supporters, suggested the amphitheater wasn't worth building.

In an earlier study completed in June, KPMG listed the tennis stadium and amphitheater as the two best ways to spend the tourist tax nest egg, citing the projects' ability to operate without county subsidies.

KPMG estimated the price of the amphitheater at between $15-million and $20-million versus $5-million to $10-million for the tennis stadium.

The idea of a Wesley Chapel stadium, an open-air arena that could seat as many as 8,000, originated with Saddlebrook Resort owner Tom Dempsey.

Dempsey insists building a stadium near his resort would attract professional tournaments drawing thousands of tennis fans and international television coverage.

He initially said Saddlebrook would cover the stadium's operating expenses but later clarified that it wouldn't cover tournament fees that can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Nor did his offer cover the estimated millions in land and road costs should the county choose Dempsey's preferred stadium site southeast of Saddlebrook.

A further blow to the stadium's chances was the rejection of Tampa in October as a possible host city for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Local Olympics organizers had named Pasco the tennis venue for the games, a designation that came with a promise of a $20-million investment in county's tennis operation.

Considering the financial risks of the stadium, commissioners have raised the possibility they will sit on the tourist money indefinitely, letting the account accumulate interest.