Pasco school, park may share theater, library, ball fields at Starkey Ranch

The Pasco County Commission and School Board are considering a plan that would let a school and park share some facilities in an effort to maximize the return on tax money.
The Pasco County Commission and School Board are considering a plan that would let a school and park share some facilities in an effort to maximize the return on tax money.
Published Dec. 10, 2013

NEW PORT RICHEY — It's a project that's never been done before in Pasco County. A county park and a public school side by side, with residents and students sharing a public library, theater, track, fields and tennis courts.

"You've got to try to think out of the box if you want to be innovative," senior assistant county attorney David Goldstein told School Board members and Pasco County commissioners who met in a joint workshop Tuesday to discuss the project. Goldstein spent the past three months hammering out an agreement with the county, the School District and Wheelock Capital, owners of the Starkey Ranch development for the proposed park and school site.

"We fully anticipate some parts of this are not going to work, but if we don't try, we don't know if they can be successful," Goldstein said.

Commissioners and board members began talking about the idea several months ago as a way to maximize limited revenues and avoid duplication of services. The project is moving quickly, with each entity expected to give formal approval next week.

The park will be built in two phases, with the first expected to open in 2015.

Phase 1 includes four small baseball/softball fields; one large baseball/softball field, six large multipurpose fields, two press boxes and concession stands, a pavilion with picnic tables, a playground, a maintenance building and more than a mile of trails.

A second phase, to be built as funding becomes available, includes three large multipurpose fields, a playground, a press box and concession stand, and 1,870 feet of trails.

The estimated cost to design and build Phase 1 is $9 million, including the cost of design and site preparation as well as parking for Phase 2. It will be paid for with west Pasco zone impact fees, which are expected to total $8.1 million in September. Phase 2 is projected to cost $1.9 million.

Wheelock Capital will design, permit and construct the first phase. If not enough money is available to cover the cost, the developer will build less or the county can pledge future impact fees to the project. Wheelock will pay for off-site roads, trails and utilities.

The developer will also operate and maintain Phase 1 for two years at an estimated annual cost of $285,000. After that, costs will gradually shift to the county each year until 2024, when the county would assume full responsibility.

Under the agreement with the Pasco School District, the park would sit next to an elementary/middle school. The two would share a 20,000-square-foot library, a 6,000-square-foot black box theater, a gymnasium, four tennis courts, four basketball courts, a track and field, one small baseball field, a playground, an open play field and a concession stand/restroom.

Estimated opening date for the school would be 2018, but the library and theater could open sooner.

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Operating and maintenance agreements would be re-evaluated after two years, then every five years thereafter. Revenue from shared facilities would be split between the School District and county based on the percentage each party spends on operating, maintenance and staffing.

Costs would be shared, too, with the site work for the gym paid for by the School District. The district also would design, construct, own and maintain the gym, which would be open to the public during evenings, weekends and school breaks. The public and students would have separate locker rooms. The district would also pay for site preparation for the outdoor areas, with the county owning them after construction and leasing to the district. Except for the tennis courts, which would be open to the public at all times, residents could use the outdoor areas evenings, weekends and during school breaks.

As for the library and theater, the county and district will split the estimated $5 million cost. The library would have separate youth and teen areas, which would be used mainly by students during weekdays. The School District and county would share the theater, with the district being able to reserve it with two weeks' notice. The county would own the library, which would be separate from the school building. That arrangement will allow the district to comply with the Jessica Lunsford Act, which prohibits certain people from being on school campuses.

All indoor areas would be built to "green" standards to save money and energy.

The county and district would share parking and driveways around the library/theatre and north of the school, with the groups sharing maintenance costs. A public transit stop will be put on Town Avenue near the library/theater.

The district and county would share revenues from ticket surcharges, rent from private events, coaches and instructors, caterers, facility fees paid by leagues and advertising sales. Goldstein said, for example, the groups might receive money from a coffee shop that rents a spot at the library.

In a move deemed "experimental," naming rights for items such as scoreboards and fields would be sold. However any title would to have to include the phrase "at Starkey Ranch."

The park and the school building would not be part of any naming deal.

Members of both groups gushed praise for the joint project, which was discussed as early as 2000 but never became a reality.

"It's a very unique agreement," said County Commissioner Kathryn Starkey, who served on the School Board at the time the idea was first kicked around and whose family used to own the ranch of the same name. "We got baby steps done in Connerton. We really just shared a parking lot, but just barely."

School Board member Cynthia Armstrong said the public will see the project as an efficient use of their taxes.

"They don't see the difference between the School Board and the county when it comes to money," she said.

Goldstein said the ideal is that the partnership should be seamless.

"That's my hope, that it's just a public facility," he said.

Commissioner Ted Schrader told the Tampa Bay Times on Monday that the project could be the beginning of a new era of cooperation.

"The public doesn't understand why local governmental bodies can't work together," he said. "Unfortunately dynamics and politics get in the middle of it. Maybe we can put a lot of that behind us."