WESLEY CHAPEL — While this week’s grand opening might not have been the gala Pasco officials had originally hoped for due to the pandemic, there was no hiding their excitement that the long-awaited Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus was open for business.
Local dignitaries gathered Thursday and clipped the ceremonial red ribbon. Then guests toured the new facilities, visiting with the staff of sports professionals who will guide programs in a myriad of disciplines from basketball to volleyball, cheerleading to soccer.
County Commission Chairman Mike Moore kicked off the event saying “welcome to another great day here in Pasco County.”
Moore recounted the history of how the unique partnership got its start and recognized members of the Porter family in the audience for their donation of the land for the campus.
“What a legacy it is and what a legacy it’s going to be,” Moore said. “We honor you, we thank you and we couldn’t have done this without you.”
Even in these unusual times, officials said there is no lack of interest in the facility, which is Pasco County’s centerpiece for its “Experience Florida’s Sports Coast” tourism marketing pitch. There are already 43 weekends booked for events over the next year.
The first sporting competitions kicked off last weekend with the Tampa Live tournament, explained Jannah Nager, marketing director for RADDSports, the facility management company hired by the county. The competition, was organized by SOH Elite, which is a non-profit travel basketball program based in South Florida.
“We had 64 teams playing over the two days ages ranging from fifth graders up to eleventh graders,‘' Nager said.
Moore said that premier event brought bookings for 500 rooms. “It’s not a dream anymore,’' he said.
Located on 3021 Sports Coast Way, the $44-million campus is a public-private partnership first discussed nearly 20 years ago. Only $29 million is tourist tax supported the project and the rest is the private investment of the hotel which will be built there in the coming months. The campus was designed to get Pasco on a firm footing for a share in the amateur sports tourism market, which is estimated as a $10 billion-a-year industry.
The 80-acre site is centered around the 98,000-square-foot gymnasium which houses eight basketball courts, 16 volleyball courts, 16 pickleball courts, eight futsal courts, two cheer competition areas, a competition cheer studio, an athletic training area, a mezzanine overlooking the various activities and a restaurant.
Visitors to the grand opening could see various coaching and training sessions going on throughout the building. Ronnie Outen, director of basketball, raved about the facilities and their versatility pointing out how the spacious gym could handle up to 16 courts for play or practice or could just highlight a single game in a competition.
“We can accommodate hundreds and hundreds of kids at any time,” Outen said. “There is no other facility like this, not in the southeast and maybe not in the country.”
At another spot in the facility, visitors could see students practicing futsal under the watchful eye of soccer program director Stuart Campbell, former coach of the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
“We want to improve technical ability,’' he said. “If you can improve technical ability especially at an early age, you give them a fantastic chance.”
He also proudly showed off the two soccer fields behind the gymnasium which will also be available for other sporting events or festivals. Five more fields are slated to be built on the campus as well. “It’s a fantastic facility,” Campbell said, noting it might even attract professional soccer in the future.
Plans for the surrounding property include a public park, amphitheater and a 128-room Residence Inn by Marriott. The location puts it north and east of the Shops at Wiregrass and it will join other area sports-tourism draws including the Saddlebrook Resort, Advent Health Center Ice and the Sarah Vande Berg Tennis and Wellness Center in Zephyrhills.
Moore, who also chairs the Pasco County Tourist Development Council, told visitors that the campus will not only provide space for weekend sports events that will draw visitors to enjoy the lodging, restaurant and attractions that Pasco has to offer but that during the week, programs will be available for local youth. He was optimistic that the facilities will help the county move forward after the economic hit to tourism due to the coronavirus.
“We are the Florida Sports Coast,” he said, “We will overcome. We will recover.”