Pinellas eyes youth sports complex with big question: Where would it fit?

In Florida’s densest county, planting a flag in a $19 billion industry is a question of space.
The Toytown area, the site of a former landfill, is pictured in 2009. It's one of the only spots in Pinellas County that would be large enough to hold a youth sports complex of the sort the county is now considering.
The Toytown area, the site of a former landfill, is pictured in 2009. It's one of the only spots in Pinellas County that would be large enough to hold a youth sports complex of the sort the county is now considering. [ CHRIS URSO | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published March 2

CLEARWATER — While the tenuous future of professional baseball in St. Petersburg hangs over Pinellas County, local leaders are considering making a play in a different, potentially lucrative field: youth sports.

They believe an amateur sports complex for tournament play could pump millions of dollars a year into the local economy and tax coffers. It would give Pinellas a chance to plant its flag in a growing industry with a worth pegged at $19 billion, more than the revenue of the National Football League and National Basketball Association.

It also creates one big question for officials in Florida’s densest county: Where would it go?

A report presented this week to the Pinellas County Commission and Tourist Development Council offered two possible models, a 12-field, 66-acre complex focused on baseball and softball and a 120-acre one that adds a dozen multi-purpose fields. The former would fit on only a handful of sites in Pinellas. The latter?

“Toytown,” County Administrator Barry Burton said. “That’s it.”

The former landfill near Interstate 275 and Roosevelt Boulevard has plenty of room — and environmental concerns that would make it much more expensive to develop.

The report was meant to determine whether building a complex here, along the lines of facilities that have made the Jupiter and Fort Myers-Naples areas hotbeds for youth sports, was realistic, Burton said.

Pasco County has also invested heavily in attracting amateur athletic competition as a means of boosting its tourism industry, branding itself Florida’s Sports Coast in 2019.

In addition to acreage, the Pinellas study gives officials some numbers to consider. The larger model is projected to generate $66 million in local spending and $1.7 million in sales and bed taxes by its fifth year, when it would be close to paying for its own operating expenses. The smaller one would bring in less money and take longer to break even. The price tag on the bigger complex is estimated at about $78 million, the smaller one at about $48 million.

Some attendees at the Tuesday presentation asked whether they risk entering an oversaturated market. Dan Morton, of the Sports Facilities Companies, the management firm that prepared the report, said it’s “obviously always a concern.” But Pinellas would have a big advantage, as it’s already a vacation destination — the kind of place where families would be happy to travel with their kids’ teams and spend extra money.

“That’s where we see these facilities do best: the Myrtle Beaches of the world, the Gatlinburg, Tennessees,” he said.

Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, a Tourist Development Council member, suggested the city-owned Landings Golf Club as a possible site for the smaller model.

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Burton would like to take a closer look at Toytown, he said, if the county will spend money on an engineering study. It’s already clear, though, that building on the landfill site would drastically increase the cost of a youth sports complex. The Florida legislature has allocated $15 million toward environmental remediation at Toytown, but that’s just a chunk of the $100 million it would take to cap the landfill.

In 2012, a developer proposed a new professional baseball stadium there, an idea that went nowhere. A few years later, the same developer teamed with retired baseball star Gary Sheffield on a pitch for an amateur sports complex. At the same time, the Atlanta Braves considered it for a new spring training site. Both ideas fell apart.

This time, the youth sports idea comes at a pivotal moment for Pinellas’ sporting future. St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch has settled on a developer for a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium, but the county still doesn’t know what it’ll be asked to contribute toward the project, much less whether it’ll come to fruition.

“If the Rays do not stay here, we should be looking for options to expand our attraction for tourism and sports,” County Commissioner Charlie Justice said. “I’d like to know that before we pull the trigger on what the next thing is.”