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Pasco County sports tourism plan: Soft start, then play hard

The Wiregrass Ranch Sports Complex is scheduled to be completed in July 2020
A rendering of the interior of the Wiregrass Ranch Sports Complex under construction in Wesley Chapel. It is scheduled to be completed in July 2020. [Pasco County]
Published Aug. 26

NEW PORT RICHEY — The manager for the Wiregrass Ranch Sports Complex has previewed his playbook: No false starts, an opening pace that might be considered soft, then full speed ahead for years to come.

That is the plan from Richard Blalock, CEO of RADD Sports, the private company managing the publicly financed indoor sports center under construction in Wesley Chapel. He shared the company’s proposed schedule last week with members of the Pasco Tourist Development Council, an advisory board to Pasco County commissioners.

The $45 million complex will cover 80 acres north of State Road 56 and feature a nearly 100,000-square-foot indoor gymnasium, two outdoor fields (initially) and an adjoining hotel. Financed by the county’s tourist tax proceeds, the center is intended to be a centerpiece of the county’s sports-tourism efforts.

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When completed, the building will be capable of housing eight basketball or 16 volleyball courts, plus other amenities. It is expected to lure those sports, plus cheerleading, martial arts and other indoor competitions.

Site work began in February and construction started in June. Earlier this month, the project went vertical — steel posts are visible to onlookers.

Thomas Pyche, the county’s chief project manager, said the gymnasium’s roof and building panels should be completed in November, and the entire center, excluding the hotel, is scheduled to be finished July 10, 2020.

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But don’t expect out-of-town athletes to be inside draining threes or serving aces on July 11.

Blalock told the tourism board to anticipate a soft opening with the first event bringing visitors from outside the area likely in October 2020. The event scheduling, which has not yet begun, is intended to accommodate potential construction delays, plus the summer rainy season.

The goal is to avoid canceling an event because the building isn’t finished.

“That’s the worst thing we can do to have that out in the market,’’ he said.

One basketball organization already wants to book a Christmas tournament and the Amateur Athletic Union is seeking to schedule up to 14 events, he said. Others are anticipated to follow suit.

Blalock pointed to the RADD Sports-managed baseball and softball complex in Newberry in Alachua County. That 16-field complex began its initial season this year with nine events, but is booked to its 32-event capacity for next year.

Among other considerations, Blalock said his company is conferring with marketers at the nearby AdventHospital Center Ice to avoid conflicting events. And the size of the Wiregrass Ranch center will allow RADD Sports to hold multiple events simultaneously, including being host to sports competitions on one end and offering convention space on the other.

“If we’re not maximizing 80 percent of that facility at any given time, we’re not doing our job,’’ Blalock said.

The county’s ultimate goal is for out-of-town competitors and their families to stay in Pasco hotels, eat in local restaurants and shop in local stores. The county’s former flagship sports-tourism event, the Dick’s Sporting Goods Tournament of Champions for club lacrosse teams, ended a 10-year run in Wesley Chapel in 2017 amid criticism of its marketing and lodging efforts. In 2016, only 25 percent of the 3,694 room nights generated by the tournament were booked at hotels in Pasco County.

Commissioner Mike Moore, chairman of the tourism board, doesn’t want that to happen again.

“The only reason they (teams at the Wiregrass Ranch complex) should be in Hillsborough County is if we run out of rooms,’’ he said.

The county’s most recent tourism statistics show space should be available. Hotels reported average occupancy rates of 72.3 percent in June, down slightly from 2018 numbers, in part, because there are more hotels from which to choose. Three new hotels opened since summer 2018, bringing the number of full-service hotels in the county to 38. More are under construction or planned in the Trinity-to-Wesley Chapel corridor along State Roads 54 and 56.

Revenue to the county from its 4 percent tax on overnight accommodations stands at $2.4 million so far this fiscal year, an increase of $337,000.

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