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Pasco rejects Porter plan to operate Wiregrass sports fields

Published Mar. 6, 2013

DADE CITY — They walked away from the bargaining table once when it came to managing a 20-field sports complex. Then they came back, with a proposal that county officials said was no different from the original.

Now the county has shut the door on the Porter family's second offer to use $14 million in tourism taxes to design, build and operate the proposed park on 160 acres of its former cattle ranch.

County purchasing director Scott Stromer said it would be unfair to other companies that passed on the bid to manage the proposed Fields at Wiregrass.

"We recommend that you reject this bid as non-responsive," he said.

He reiterated the same thoughts expressed in a memo last week that stated: "The Purchasing Department is very concerned about the precedent that may be established by allowing an offeror to terminate negotiations, which resulted from a formal competitive process; only to have that same firm submit a similar proposal in response to a new solicitation for similar services."

Instead, county officials opted to open talks with the only other bidder, Blue Marble Strategic, a Tampa company founded by James Talton whose background is in the hotel and resort business.

Blue Marble's offer asked for only $5 million to $6 million of the tourism taxes, with the rest coming from private sources. In return, Blue Marble is seeking a long-term lease of the property.

"The current budget ($14 million) is not sufficient to build a facility to meet Pasco County's objectives," Blue Marble's proposal said. "In order for Pasco County to meet its objectives of becoming a national and possibly international sports destination 'supporting tourism,' generating over 7,000 room nights, over $7 million in economic impact, and revenues to the county in excess of $1.2 million, it should consider a different proposal that minimizes costs to the county and mitigates the risk of constructing an unprofitable commoditized product."

At Stromer's recommendation, commissioners agreed to postpone hearing proposals from seven firms to design the proposed park until they determine the validity of Blue Marble's offer to build and operate it.

J.D. Porter, manager of the Wiregrass property, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The family's land use attorney, Bill Merrill, said neither he nor the family was present so he could not yet comment on the matter.

The Porters' proposal, which included the Diamond Nation LLC and Turf Solutions Group LLC, called for using the $14 million and overseeing design, construction and operations of the park, which would be owned by the county.

Stromer said the proposal contained "essentially" the same terms that Wiregrass Sports, the Porter family's company, had rejected a few months ago.

Because of that, Stromer wrote, "the purchasing department finds it unreasonable to expect the same firm will accept terms that were recently rejected."

The Porters' and the county's negotiations over the deal had been tense for nearly a year.

The Porter family originally agreed to operate the park, but that broke down during negotiations over an operations and maintenance agreement. Among the hang-ups: The county asked for 8 percent of the profits, but the Porters thought that was too greedy.

Talks were on a low boil for months but burst into the open in September when Porter attorney 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.

But in the end, the hurdles were overcome, with the Porters essentially donating the land and $1 million worth of fill dirt in November. The deal still has not closed, however, and was a reason that tourism officials and commissioners cited in postponing any decision to increase the 2 percent tourism tax, which is the lowest levy in the Tampa Bay area.

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