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Naming deal would affect only stadium

Pasco would keep naming rights for a proposed tennis complex; only the center court's name could be sold, says Saddlebrook's owner.

By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 6, 2002


Saddlebrook Resort owner Tom Dempsey insists that Pasco County could have naming rights to a proposed publicly financed $5.7-million tennis complex he wants to run.

It's the naming rights to the tennis stadium within the complex that could be up for sale.

Dempsey, in a response to a St. Petersburg Times story about the sale of the naming rights, said Friday his proposal to build the stadium included figures on the sale of the naming rights because that's what the county asked for.

In the past, Dempsey suggested the Pasco National Tennis Center would "globally identify Pasco County as a tennis mecca."

Dempsey said that is still true. The projected $50,000 in income for naming rights he included in his financial plans for the facility relates to the stadium -- the center court with up to 5,000 seats, he said.

But the entire complex, he suggests, should remain the Pasco National Tennis Center.

"It is not our desire, or recommendation, that the name of the complex be anything other than: Pasco National Tennis Center," he said in a written statement.

Some commissioners remember it differently.

Commissioner Ann Hildebrand thought the name would be on the stadium but said she is more concerned with other issues, such as the availability of roads leading to the proposed site.

Commissioner Steve Simon, who has pitched an alternative idea for a multipurpose sports complex, said he doesn't recall Dempsey's ever making a distinction between the center and the stadium. He also said he's more concerned about other issues, such as Saddlebrook's sole control over management of the stadium, including revenues, vendors and employment.

"I think he just looked at it and found a new way to split hairs . . . for dollars," Simon said.

But Dempsey said he got the idea from the county's request for a proposal issued earlier this year for the construction of a tennis stadium with $5.7-million in accumulated taxes on hotel stays.

"Pasco County will entertain corporate sponsorship (naming rights) for the complex," the county's document states. "Approval of such sponsorship will be at the sole discretion of Pasco County; however, approval will not be unreasonably withheld. Such sponsorship must prove to be financially advantageous and in the best interest of Pasco County."

That paragraph was why he included the sale of rights in the financial plan.

"This leaves an option to the County Commission to sell the naming rights to the stadium only," Dempsey's statement said. "There are examples of stadiums having independent identity names within a tennis complex."

During an interview Friday, he used the U.S. Open as an example. It is held at the USTA National Tennis Center in New York. The finals are played in the Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Responding to commissioners' concerns about the county's visibility, Dempsey said that he would market events as being at the Pasco National Tennis Center, if the county chooses to stick with that name.

Why would a corporation pay the money to put its name on a stadium when it won't be marketed?

"Now when people walk in and there's a name on the stadium, the person that takes the name of the stadium is getting exposure to the attendants," he said.

The sale of the stadium naming rights is crucial to the center's profitability in its early stages. In its first six months, the projected income from naming rights is $50,000 out of a total center revenue of $183,000. Minus expenses, the surplus would be $23,000.

But Dempsey said the county would not lose out if it chose not to sell the naming rights because Saddlebrook International Tennis Inc. is guaranteeing any operating losses.

"You don't need the money," he said. "If (the county) chooses to sell it, they just add more money to the pot."

A Times reporter met with Dempsey in his office Friday in hopes of getting answers to a detailed list of questions about his stadium plan. Dempsey answered a few questions beyond the naming rights issue before ending the interview.

"Let's stop right now," he said, handing out another statement. "That's as far as I care to go right there."

The statement put off further questions until the commission's workshop at 9 a.m. Thursday at the Historic County Courthouse in Dade City where Dempsey will make his presentation.

"We feel it is inappropriate for us, or any others, to publicly comment on this subject until we have had the opportunity to sit down with the county commissioners and Tourist Development Board," the statement said.

He did say:

The Harry Hopman tennis academy would not be housed at the complex but would remain at Saddlebrook Resort, which Dempsey owns. Last year he said he would move the academy to the complex.

"Saddlebrook will have some of our principal people available over there for the public," Dempsey said. "We'll have after-school programs. We'll have adult programs. We'll set up leagues for the area. . . . What goes over there is going to be strictly for the public of Pasco County."

The corporate entity that would cover any debts incurred by the tennis complex has annual revenues of $10-million. He would not reveal its annual profits but said it was in the "seven figures."

Dempsey has pledged that his business would cover any deficits and that the county and taxpayers would not be responsible for operational losses or the cost of events at the center.

Here is a brief look at the overall plan:

The county's 2 percent hotel tax has generated about $5.7-million. That's the money to be used to pay for the complex if the commission decides to move ahead with the idea. By law, the money must be spent on something that generates more tourism.

Simon recently began championing the idea of a multipurpose sports complex to tap into soccer and softball tournaments.

On Dempsey's tennis proposal, county officials want the construction costs to be the total extent of taxpayer participation in the project. Once the doors open, it is supposed to be self-sustaining. Dempsey says it would be.

The center stadium, seating up to 5,000, would be surrounded by 14 courts and three practice soccer fields that would double as parking during big events.

A nonprofit agency, Saddlebrook Sports Foundation Inc., would run the center. Its board would include Dempsey and four other executives at Saddlebrook, including his son-in-law.

Contractors Turner Construction Co. and Rossetti Architectural firm, both of whom handled the Arthur Ashe stadium, are stating that the total cost of construction would not top $5.7-million.

Dempsey says his tennis world connections and reputation, as well as an attractive market in Central Florida, would draw tournaments to the center. His financial plan assumes that in the first four years, the center would host an international Davis Cup tournament and a Federation Cup tournament.

But Dempsey says Saddlebrook is not a one-man show.

"You're doing business with Saddlebrook the corporation," he said, "which has an array of experts, and most of the experts in this company have stronger personal relationships with all those people than I do personally."

-- 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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