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Pasco officials accept Wiregrass Ranch site for future sports complex

NEW PORT RICHEY — As County Administrator John Gallagher puts it, "sometimes it takes time to make fine wine."

In the case of a multifield park aimed at luring youth sports tournaments and tourism dollars, that held true as it took the county and Porter family a year to hammer out an agreement that would allow the family to donate 138 acres.

On Tuesday, county commissioners and owners of the Wiregrass Ranch toasted the deal, reached after a number of stops and starts. Commissioners voted unanimously to accept the 14-page agreement, which was still being ironed out right up until the special meeting.

"I know this has been a long and arduous process we've gone through," Commission Chairman Ted Schrader said after the vote. "It will be a recreational benefit … to bring a world-class, first-place facility to Pasco County so the Tourism Development Council and Pasco County can promote sports tourism in a first-class manner."

J.D. Porter, manager for the Wiregrass Ranch property, said he was glad to finalize the deal, which still had not closed. Commissioners agreed to extend the date to Tuesday to do so.

"This sends a lot of positive feelings to people who witnessed three failed sports complexes," he said, a reference to the county's efforts over the past decade to finally spend about $14 million in tourism taxes, which is a 2 percent levy charged to those who stay in hotels or other short-term rentals.

Though amicable on Tuesday, the relationship between the county and the Porters during the past year hasn't always been so sunny.

In April 2012, commissioners approved plans for the 200-acre Fields at Wiregrass, which would have eight baseball and softball fields and a dozen multipurpose fields for soccer or lacrosse. County officials then began negotiating with the Porter family to write an operation and maintenance agreement for the complex.

Talks simmered for months, but boiled over in September when Porter attorney Bill Merrill told an assistant county attorney that the county might have to find a new company to run the park if it stuck to its version of the operation agreement. The family would still donate land for the park if the county remained committed to spending $14 million in tourism and sales taxes to build the facility.

The snags resulted over scheduling, with the family and the county each wanting control. The county also wanted 8 percent of revenue, which the Porters said was too greedy. Naming rights also proved to be a 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. The county insisted on the phrase "clean fill dirt" in the agreement.

Months later, when the county solicited bids to build and manage the facility, the Porters submitted one. But the county rejected it, opting instead to open talks with Tampa-based Blue Marble Strategic. Blue Marble says it would need only $8.5 million in tourism money and would raise the rest privately. No deal has been finalized, but talks are ongoing.

Around the same time the Wiregrass donation was being discussed, county officials proposed spending $2 million on lacrosse fields at the nearby Wesley Chapel District Park. The fields, along with a parking lot, would help the county keep Dick's Sporting Goods Tournament of Champions, a national lacrosse event that had been considering moving.

The proposal came as a surprise to the Porters, who were under the impression that virtually all of the tourism money had been set aside for their land. But county staff said the delays in the deal with the Porters made it necessary for them to act to honor the agreement with the company sponsoring the lacrosse tournament. Commissioners put off the Wesley Chapel park proposal out of deference to the Porters, but ultimately approved the expenditure.

The vote on Tuesday to accept the Wiregrass property is another step in the county's efforts to market itself as a youth sports destination. Over the years, officials have wrestled with how to promote Pasco, which lacks the beaches, professional sports teams and theme parks of larger nearby counties.

In addition to the Porters' proposal to build and manage a sports park, county officials previously considered a tennis stadium with Saddlebrook Resort and then a sportsplex in Odessa. But those plans also went sour.