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Alternative stadium site sought

Pasco County's inability to lock up 20 acres needed to build a $5.7-million tennis stadium in Wesley Chapel has left county officials scrounging for backup sites farther afield.

Pasco had assumed the stadium site near the Meadow Pointe neighborhood was more or less secure. But a standoff between land owners has stalled plans to extend State Road 56 to the tennis property.

Absent a guaranteed highway to handle tennis traffic, stadium supporters have widened their search for a site. Chief among them is 140 acres the county has contracted to buy on Boyette Road north of State Road 54.

With dreams of international television coverage and heaps of tax dollars, county officials plan to partner with tennis powerhouse Saddlebrook Resort on the 3,500-seat, 15-court stadium.

County Attorney Bob Sumner rated the Boyette parcel "excellent" for such a project. It is due to become a public park and is within a couple of miles of Saddlebrook.

Saddlebrook owner Tom Dempsey is less smitten, calling the Boyette site too hard to reach from Interstate 75 and his resort. Dempsey said he knows of at least three alternative sites within a 7-mile radius of Saddlebrook, but he declined specifics.

"The roads are very small," Dempsey said of the Boyette site.

A possible solution comes from county Commissioner Ted Schrader. Ever the booster for his east Pasco commission district, Schrader suggests building the stadium on State Road 52 west of San Antonio.

Though a stadium supporter, Schrader has been cool to the original tennis site. It's so close to the Hillsborough County line that many tennis fans would lodge and dine in Hillsborough rather than Pasco, he said.

But isn't SR 52 too far away from Saddlebrook, Tampa International Airport and the population centers of Tampa and St. Petersburg? Not for Schrader. Among the advantages of the northern location are the cheap land and less congested roads.

"It's not that far north," Schrader said. "You've still got great access from Interstate 75."

The scurrying for sites is necessitated by snarled negotiations between land owners Lee Arnold and Don Porter.

Arnold and his business partner, Meadow Pointe developer Don Buck, agreed to donate 15 acres as part of a stadium site in a future phase of their 3,500-home neighborhood. The stadium complex needs 20 acres, so the county will buy an adjoining 5 acres.

Key to the stadium's success is the extension of SR 56. That highway runs from Interstate 75 to Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. Arnold and Buck agreed to bankroll an eastward extension of SR 56 to serve Meadow Pointe.

But unless Porter sells land to build the road through his 5,000-acre Wiregrass Ranch, SR 56 is going nowhere. Negotiations recently fizzled over a county directive that Arnold need not finish SR 56 until 2008.

Porter has more immediate development plans for his property, and wants a financial guarantee from Arnold that he won't ditch highway construction should Meadow Pointe not expand as predicted.

Porter's tactics have stymied stadium plans, county officials said this week. Without SR 56, Arnold and Buck can't fully develop the property that includes the donated tennis site.

"If you don't have 56, then you have only one way in and out of the stadium, which loads up State Road 54 and County Line Road and Meadow Pointe," Sumner said.

Neither Porter nor Arnold returned calls from the Times for this story.

That Porter holds the key to the original stadium site isn't lost on Dempsey, who mentioned the SR 56 delays during a tennis stadium presentation last month.

The two men share a bumpy history. Dempsey slogged through 11 years of bitter lawsuits with Porter over claims that a dam at the resort flooded Wiregrass Ranch.

The legal wars ended in a 2000 settlement in which Saddlebrook promised to dismantle the dam and pay Porter $350,000.

Dempsey insists the latest land dispute will not jeopardize his plans for a tennis complex in Wesley Chapel.

"I never would have entered into anything that would have been as problematic as that," he said.

A majority of county commissioners support building the complex with $5.7-million stockpiled from a 2 percent tax on hotel rooms.

Dempsey, whose resort is well known in professional tennis circles (superstar Jennifer Capriati lives there), would manage the complex through a non-profit company.

Sumner suggested that despite Arnold's and Porter's disagreements, a deal could still save the original stadium site.

"I think it's still on the table," Sumner said.

_ Times staff writer Saundra Amrhein contributed to this report.