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Battle over $6-million to be decided by 3 commissioners

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By C. T. BOWEN, Pasco Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 6, 2002

Steve Simon, meet Tom Dempsey. They are competing sales reps trying to land the big account.

No down-on-their-luck Willie Lomans here. Simon is confident, fresh off his successful re-election to the Pasco County Commission and possessor of a public opinion poll he thinks gives him the edge.

Dempsey is owner of the highly regarded Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel, a golf and tennis mecca he built from the ground up, and a frequent contributor to County Commission campaigns. He distributed a total of $2,000 to Peter Altman, Ann Hildebrand and Ted Schrader two years ago.

The big account is close to $6-million, proceeds from the county's tourist tax. Dempsey wants it to build a tennis stadium near his resort. Simon wants it earmarked for a multipurpose facility for youth sports tournaments and community festivals. He won't name a site, but logic dictates it will be closer to west Pasco than Dempsey's stadium.

Simon moved aggressively into sales over the past week. Mostly, because he, too, was seduced by Dempsey's impressive pitch.

"Dempsey is about to bring us the cleanest of industries: super athletics," Simon said last summer. "If he can pull that off, Pasco benefits for the next 20 years."

Simon also answered questions about the appropriate use of the 2 percent surcharge on overnight accommodations, which by law, must be spent to boost tourism in the county.

"This is heads-and-beds money and that's what it's supposed to be used for," the commissioner said then.

At the time, though, Dempsey promised to cover all operating expenses, was recruiting the headquarters for the Women's Tennis Association and had been selected as the tennis venue if Central Florida landed the 2012 Olympics. Neither the WTA nor the Olympics are coming and Simon cooled when he learned a similarly publicly owned tennis stadium in Delray Beach required a half-million-dollar subsidy including, at the time, a $250,000 fee to land a tournament.

So, Simon assembled his own sales technique: Spend the tourist tax money to help locals. He said the money should build youth sports fields that can be used by local groups absent scheduled tournaments. It should include a pavilion or building and open space for local charities to use for their annual fundraising ventures, proceeds of which are pumped back into the Pasco community.

What happened to tennis?

"It's just not the right thing to do," Simon said.

But, he doesn't stop with the altruism. He paints the Saddlebrook proposal as a benefit to the affluent which won't bring significant commerce to Pasco County.

Youth sports, however, will attract families seeking out the golden arches of McDonald's, hoping to make it before their car broke down, Simon told the Holiday Rotary Club on Tuesday.

Here is where his sales pitch needs work. In essence, he is saying let's spend millions of dollars to lure moderate- and middle-income families with little disposable cash.

Why spend money to do that? We're already here.

Dempsey recognized the appeal of Simon's pitch and shrewdly tailored his own. His proposal now calls for allowing the stadium's grass parking lots as soccer fields, helping to meet the demand for youth sports fields in fast-growing Wesley Chapel.

Simon is courting the public at large. Dempsey is shooting for much different demographics: Three county commissioners to approve his idea. Simon opposes it. Pat Mulieri wants a second study done on the multipurpose center, a complex that is closer to Simon's vision than the convention center or music amphitheater that became the focus of an earlier consultant's report.

Mulieri said Thursday afternoon that she had not yet read Dempsey's formal proposal, but there was plenty about which she was concerned. For one, community events would have to fork over $5,000 to use the stadium. And, more notably, the Pasco National Tennis Center, as Dempsey has refearred to his project since the inception, might not be known by that name.

Under his proposal, the naming rights for the stadium are held exclusively by Dempsey. Sale of the name is key to the bottom line.

Welcome to the Poulan Weedeater Tennis Complex. Houlihan's Hardcourts?

Or, dare we say it? St. Pete Times Tennis Stadium?

So much for putting Pasco County on the map even if its name is retained as part of the overall complex.

Fear not, though.

That stadium in Delray Beach has no corporate name. The city has been unable to find anyone to buy it for its asking price of $150,000 annually.

Maybe Pasco County will get to put its name on the Saddlebrook stadium after all.

For a fee.

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