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Women's tennis reneges on deal

The international headquarters of women's professional tennis isn't coming to Pasco County as promised.

The Women's Tennis Association, which manages more than $50-million in prize money at 67 tournaments in 33 countries, had planned to consolidate its operations at Wesley Chapel's Saddlebrook Resort in August. But Chris DeMaria, the WTA's vice president of communications, said women's tennis has backed out of the deal it arranged with Saddlebrook in the spring.

"We won't be moving our headquarters there," DeMaria said Friday afternoon from a meeting of the WTA's board of directors in Key Biscayne. "But we will have some sort of formal relationship with Saddlebrook."

Saddlebrook, like most other tourism-based business in Pasco, suffered from the economic downtown and the aftereffects of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Collections of Pasco's 2 percent tax on hotel rooms, by which the county measures tourist traffic, dropped by half in the fall. With 800 hotel rooms, Saddlebrook typically accounts for 30 to 50 percent of the tax haul.

A key part of the deal with the WTA was Saddlebrook's promise to build a 13,000-square-foot office building for women's tennis near the resort's entrance on State Road 54.

The slump at Saddlebrook raised questions about whether resort owner Tom Dempsey could afford to bankroll construction of the headquarters, which might have cost $1-million.

Dempsey couldn't be reached for comment Friday.

Pasco County Commissioner Pete Altman offered further reasons for the change of plans, based on a meeting with Dempsey and WTA executive Josh Ripple in his New Port Richey office this week.

The WTA wants its headquarters in a city with a greater concentration of potential sponsors for women's tennis, Altman said. Speculation has centered on Los Angeles and Atlanta.

Saddlebrook would retain the title of "official training ground and resort of the WTA," Altman said.

"The tennis arm would proceed at Saddlebrook and the headquarters arm would move into a market that had a better corporate base to do their business," Altman said.

The WTA had its headquarters in Stamford, Conn., until the end of last year, when it temporarily merged its staff at a satellite office it has maintained for years in the former Soreno Hotel at 133 First St. NE in St. Petersburg.

As to where the headquarters will end up, the WTA board, gathered in Key Biscayne for the Nasdaq-100 tournament, could firm up plans as early as this weekend, DeMaria said.

"We're looking at a lot of options and obviously St. Petersburg would be one of them," he said.

Pasco officials had been eager for the publicity WTA headquarters offered. Last year, county commissioners agreed to pay the WTA $750,000 _ $75,000 over 10 years _ for the right to be named "The Home of the WTA Tour."

Altman said Dempsey, based on the loss of the headquarters, released the county from having to pay.

Still in the air is Dempsey's request that the county spend $6-million in stockpiled hotel tax money to build a 5,000- to 8,000-seat tennis stadium near Saddlebrook.

Enthusiasm has cooled among commissioners in the nine months since Dempsey pitched the stadium, in part over concerns about the arena's ability to operate without public subsidies.

Nevertheless, the county was prepared to seek bids from management and construction companies interested in a Wesley Chapel stadium.