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Stadium alternative suggested

A county commissioner floats the idea of using tourist tax dollars to build a multipurpose youth sports complex rather than a tennis stadium.

By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 22, 2002


Tennis might no longer be the only game in town when it comes to spending millions of tourist tax dollars.

About a month after the county received a proposal to construct a tennis stadium by Saddlebrook Resort, County Commissioner Steve Simon wants to serve another suggestion to his colleagues.

Instead of a multimillion-dollar tennis stadium, he wants to explore the idea of using the money for a multipurpose youth sports complex.

The complex would have fields for soccer and softball as well as room for charity events held by Rotary clubs and chambers of commerce, Simon suggested.

"They are constantly scrambling for a place for events," Simon said of the Rotary clubs and chambers.

"You might be talking about a couple thousand (soccer) families that are always traveling, that are putting together trips for tournaments," Simon said. "It would be nice if we had the potential for tournaments here. We are always stymied by the lack of one good-sized facility."

Not only would the facility bring tourists to Pasco hotels during tournaments, but local children also could use the fields the other months, Simon said.

"I don't think the tennis stadium is a benefit to the many," he said.

Simon plans to meet with the Holiday Rotary Club on Oct. 1 to talk about the idea. He'd then discuss the feedback with his fellow commissioners during a meeting that same night at West Pasco Government Center in New Port Richey.

Simon cooled to the idea of a tennis stadium shortly after it was revealed last year that operating calculations -- stated as costing the county nothing -- failed to include tennis tournament fees that in other cities cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Also, a year ago, Tampa learned it wasn't in the running to host the 2012 Summer Olympics, costing Pasco a shot at being the official tennis venue.

Then in March, the Women's Tennis Association announced it wouldn't put its international headquarters at Saddlebrook.

Still, late last year, the County Commission agreed to seek proposals to build a public tennis stadium in Wesley Chapel, but stipulated the arena not draw one dime of operating subsidies from taxpayers.

In July, the commission issued requests for proposals to develop a tennis stadium.

The idea stemmed from Saddlebrook Resort owner Tom Dempsey, who last year proposed building a stadium with $5.7-million stockpiled from a 2 percent tax on hotel rooms since 1991.

Dempsey dubbed the 5,000- to 8,000-seat open-air tennis arena the "Pasco National Tennis Center" and suggested it be built within minutes of Saddlebrook in Wesley Chapel.

Last month, Saddlebrook's was the only proposal that responded to the county's request.

County budget director Mike Nurrenbrock plans to present the sealed proposal to the commission sometime in October after the budget process.

Simon wants to line up community feedback on youth sports before Nurrenbrock's presentation.

Other commissioners, having come this far with the tennis proposal, want to hear about Saddlebrook's plans.

Commissioner Peter Altman says he supports two facilities: possibly a tennis stadium in east Pasco and something else for the west so tourist dollars are spread out.

Commissioner Pat Mulieri said she has long believed since serving on the tourism council that the commission should look at both a tennis stadium and a sports complex.

Commissioner Ann Hildebrand said she wants to see Saddlebrook's proposal.

"We already got a lot into this," she said.

If Simon succeeds, Pasco wouldn't be the first to use youth sports as economic development.

In Hernando County, a grass roots effort succeeded in building Anderson Snow Sports Complex east of Spring Hill.

The six regulation-sized soccer fields opened this year, following eight years of fundraising, said Rob Foreman, commissioner of the First Hernando Youth Soccer Club, which has 940 children as members.

The county provided the 20 acres of land and the field lights. The community did the rest, raising $250,000 in cash and $500,000 worth of in-kind services from local businesses, he said.

To raise money, every Memorial Day weekend, the league held the Nature Coast Invitational games, attracting 70 teams from around the state. The tournaments easily draw about 4,000 people to the county during those weekends, Foreman said, many of them staying in area hotels and eating in area restaurants.

"The impetus behind those fields was that we saw . . . nine years ago that we had 300 kids playing soccer and we were growing leaps and bounds," he said. "I don't think we had any idea of the magnitude of what we were taking on."

For the Memorial Day weekend tournaments, the league used three different fields scattered around the county.

Sue Rupe, the tourism coordinator for Hernando County, said during Memorial Day weekend of 1999, the last time her office tracked the impact of Foreman's annual tournament, 11 hotels reported occupancy rates between 75 percent and 100 percent.

The estimated gain for the hotels, she said, was between $45,000 and $55,000.

The additional economic gain for the county as a whole -- including restaurant, gasoline and recreation income -- rests between $350,000 and $500,000 for the weekend tournament, she said.

"We're looking forward to some of the new tournaments we'll be able to draw," she said.

Since the completion of Anderson Snow, the league was told by the Florida Youth Soccer Association that it will now qualify to host regional championship games and possibly state championship games.

Hernando County is not alone in reaping income from youth sports.

Ten years ago, Polk County created a separate office to promote youth and adult sports programs.

The draw of youth sports tournaments in July pushed that month from being the second slowest in tourist tax collections 10 years ago to the fourth biggest today, said Mark Jackson, director of sports marketing for Polk.

Last year, his office played a role in drawing more than 130 events of youth and adult sports tournaments and championship games -- baseball, basketball and bowling.

He estimates the economic benefit from those events reached $85-million in hotel stays, restaurant receipts and other expenses.

The benefit from tourism is enormous. The income from the hotel bed tax totaled about $4-million last year, Jackson said.

Pasco's annual income from tourist taxes is $700,000.

But it's not a fair comparison. Polk collects 4 cents on the dollar. Pasco collects only 2 cents. Also, Polk County is host to several Major League Baseball spring training camps, including the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians.

Still, Jackson said, the Polk County commissioners made clear their priorities.

"They have made a huge commitment to recreation and leisure sports," he said, "realizing the demand locally is driving it but also the fact the business leaders are coming to them saying, "Look, you need to fuel this engine more.' "

-- Saundra Amrhein covers Pasco County government. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6244 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6244. Her e-mail address is amrhein@sptimes.com.

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