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Pasco commission approves deal with developer of sports complex

Developer Blue Marble would pick up the tab for Fields at Wiregrass athletic fields, a stadium, batting cages and such.
Published Jan. 14, 2014

DADE CITY ­— Pasco County commissioners on Tuesday took a big step toward construction of a sports complex in Wesley Chapel, approving an agreement that lays out terms under which the massive complex, known as the Fields at Wiregrass, will be built and operated.

Under the agreement with Tampa developer Blue Marble Strategic, Pasco will contribute $11 million — most of that in the form of tourism development fees, or bed taxes — for streets, drainage and other infrastructure while Blue Marble picks up the tab for the athletic fields, dormitories, a 2,100-seat stadium, a parking garage, batting cages and other amenities.

The agreement, approved unanimously by commissioners, is important for practical reasons. It is hoped the inch-thick document will help Blue Marble lure the $23 million necessary, mostly from investment banks and private equity firms, to enable the company to hold up its end of the deal.

The sides started negotiating last March, after the county accepted Blue Marble's proposal to build the sports complex. Although identified publicly as the project's developer, Blue Marble did not possess a formal agreement laying out the financial roles of each partner and couldn't explain to investors exactly how the project would benefit them.

"I now have something that I can show investors," Blue Marble president James Talton said during a break in Tuesday's meeting. "Every time I had a conversation with an investor, they would ask whether I had this agreement. Now I can say, 'It's right here.' This is major."

The company has six months to line up the funding before reporting back to the county.

"It's a big step, a really big step," commission Chairman Jack Mariano said. "I'm very pleased because it helps us move forward to bring in a major attractor."

County officials have tried for years, with mixed results, to nudge the Fields at Wiregrass project along.

In April 2012, commissioners approved plans for the 200-acre complex, with eight baseball and softball fields and a dozen multipurpose fields for soccer and lacrosse. County officials then began negotiating with the property's owner, the Porter family, to write an operation and maintenance agreement.

Talks simmered for months, but eventually collapsed over scheduling issues, with the family and the county each wanting control. The county also wanted 8 percent of revenue collected at the complex, which the Porters said was too much. Naming rights proved to be another sticking point.

In the end, the Porters abandoned plans to run the park and agreed to donate the land, plus 100,000 cubic yards of fill dirt to develop the site.

When workers will start putting shovels into the ground remains a big question.

Mariano said that if after six months Blue Marble is able to line up the funding and the sides can structure a final operation and maintenance agreement, construction could begin shortly after that.

County tourism director Ed Caum said the facility would take about 18 months to build. Under that scenario, he said, the complex could open by the start of the baseball season in the spring of 2016.

"It's too late for the 2015 season. Everybody has their tournaments lined up already," Caum said, adding that he would start to contact tournament organizers once the construction timetable is set.

Although capable of hosting lacrosse, soccer and football, the complex's main emphasis will be baseball and what county officials hope becomes an annual run of college baseball tournaments and possibly Grapefruit League or minor-league games.

The complex hasn't officially been named, though the agreement specifies that "Pasco" and "Wiregrass" be included. Among other terms, the agreement calls for a 45-year contract with a $60,000 yearly remittance to the county after the third year of operation, plus 3 percent of the gross revenues. Pasco Sports LLC — of which Blue Marble is a partner — would operate the complex.

In other business, the commission approved changes to the Wiregrass mixed-use development. The plan will now allow for 120 additional hotel rooms, another 1.4 million square feet of office space and 200,000 square feet of medical offices.

Rich Shopes can be reached at rshopes@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6136.

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