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County seeks arena offers, insists on its self-sufficiency

Pasco County commissioners agreed to seek proposals to build a public tennis stadium in Wesley Chapel, but stipulated the arena not draw one dime of operating subsidies from taxpayers.

And judging from the conversation at Wednesday's commissioners meeting in Dade City, that self-sufficiency requirement could doom the tentatively named Pasco National Tennis Center.

Earlier this year, Saddlebrook Resort owner Tom Dempsey proposed building the stadium with $5.7-million accumulated since 1991 from a 2 percent "tourist development tax" on hotel stays.

Aside from the allure of televised international tennis tournaments, what captured commissioners' fancy most was Dempsey's promise to manage the stadium and cover any operating losses.

But in interviews with the Times last summer, Dempsey clarified his position: His guarantee didn't include tennis tournament fees that, in other cities, cost taxpayers up to $250,000.

Nor did the initial stadium construction costs account for the estimated millions for land and roads should the county choose Dempsey's preferred stadium site about a mile southeast of Saddlebrook.

Commission chairman Steve Simon said those additional facts amounted to Dempsey "recanting" his promise and wondered if the stadium would rest, financially speaking, on "quicksand."

Commissioners met Wednesday intending to talk about rehiring consultant KPMG to weigh the prospects of a tennis stadium and concert amphitheater. In an earlier study, KPMG ranked those projects highest among the options to spend the hotel tax money.

But on the advice of county budget chief Mike Nurrenbrock, commissioners asked staffers to prepare a "request for proposals" soliciting tennis stadium offers.

Nurrenbrock suggested the county advertise by December in newspapers and tennis industry journals under the stipulation that construction costs not exceed $5.7-million and operating subsidies be nil.

Barring an agreement on those terms, commissioners argued it was better to continue accumulating interest on the $5.7-million.

Simon said there's "no downside" to holding onto the money. Commissioner Pat Mulieri said "maybe the time isn't right" to build a stadium and suggested the project would benefit Hillsborough County more than Pasco.

Even Pasco County Administrator John Gallagher opined that he's "not in love with the site offered" for the stadium in Wesley Chapel. Gallagher has said he favors a location farther north off Curley Road.

Commissioner Ann Hildebrand said she was lukewarm about tennis but willing to hear more information before accepting or rejecting the proposal.

"We can't afford to be frivolous about how these dollars are spent," she said.

Dempsey didn't return a call from the Times on Wednesday.

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