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For sale: naming rights for tennis center

The county was counting on putting its name on the proposed complex. Planners want a corporate sponsor.

By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 4, 2002

The way Saddlebrook Resort owner Tom Dempsey pitched it last year, the Pasco National Tennis Center would "globally identify Pasco County as a tennis mecca."

Now, the $5.7-million stadium proposed for Wesley Chapel, which Dempsey hopes will be paid for with tourism tax dollars, might not hold Pasco's name at all. According to plans released Wednesday, naming rights will be up for sale to corporate sponsors and will be "material" to the stadium's profitability.

Without sale of the naming rights in the first half year of the stadium's operation, the building would be in the red. The projected income from naming rights is $50,000, out of a total $183,000 in revenue. The total net surplus during that time is put at $23,000.

The income from naming rights becomes less important with time. By the end of the fourth year, income from naming rights is $61,000 a year out of $629,000 in revenues and $355,000 in net surplus.

The change in plans surprised a few county commissioners Thursday. They long have said their main concern is that the stadium be self-sufficient, not requiring a dime of county money beyond building costs, and that the facility market Pasco's name.

The name "was a big issue," said Commissioner Pat Mulieri, who had not yet read the proposal. "It was supposed to put Pasco on the map."

Dempsey could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Not only does Dempsey's proposal say the stadium will be self-sufficient. It says within five years it will net $355,000.

The naming rights are only part of Dempsey's expected revenue. He's also counting on drawing big international tennis events such as the Davis Cup as well as professional women's tournaments paying up to $650,000 in prize money.

But Commissioner Steve Simon, who has proposed an alternative idea for a multipurpose sports complex, doubted the numbers.

"This is all assumptions and no guarantees," Simon said. He worries that the promises of tournaments are flimsy because they are based only on Dempsey's connections in the tennis industry.

Dempsey has said that Saddlebrook guarantees any operating losses and that Pasco County and its taxpayers would not "bear any costs associated with events held at the proposed tennis center."

But Simon said the county might end up backed into a corner, forced to pay to bring tournaments if the stadium can't lure them or watch the stadium sit empty and lose out on tourism tax.

"If you see the thing losing money and he's telling you he can't do anything about it, and you're sitting there with $6-million invested and the sun is cracking the courts, what are you going to do?" Simon said.

Simon also worried about who might be forced to pay for cost overruns in the construction of the stadium.

The proposal was sealed until Wednesday following a request by the county for proposals for the construction of a tennis stadium as an option to spend $5.7-million accumulated from a 2 percent tax on hotel stays.

The past few weeks, Simon has pushed another idea: scrapping the tennis idea and using the money for a multipurpose sports complex.

Mulieri said Thursday she wants to see a formal proposal for a multipurpose sports complex before taking action on Dempsey's tennis proposal.

The commission and the Tourist Development Council are scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. Oct. 10 for a workshop to hear Dempsey's proposal at the Historic County Courthouse in Dade City.

Naming rights was not the only issue in the Dempsey proposal to catch some commissioners' attention.

The stadium calls for 3,500 permanent seats with the ability to expand to 5,000 around a center stadium, surrounded by 14 other tennis courts. Three soccer practice fields would also double as parking during big tennis events.

Commissioner Ann Hildebrand worried about the location. She had not thoroughly read the proposal but said its reliance on the completion of State Road 56 concerned her.

Meadow Pointe developer Don Buck has agreed to donate 15 acres for the site but access to that land is still a concern. Buck has agreed to build two lanes of State Road 56 and a north-south side road that would connect the stadium to State Road 54.

County officials assume they will need two more lanes to handle stadium traffic and the new homes. The question is who is going to pay for that.

"In no way does (the proposal) address all the infrastructure needs that are going to have to be in place," Hildebrand said.

-- Times staffer James Thorner contributed to this story.

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