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A Times Editorial

Tennis, tourism a tempting team

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 13, 2002

Pasco County just received a tourism offer better than its own consultant expected.

Saddlebrook Resort owner Tom Dempsey last week detailed his vision for a $5.7-million, 3,500-seat stadium in Wesley Chapel that can be the host to professional and amateur tennis tournaments, community leagues and even double as a concert venue.

Dempsey provided specific details, not vague promises, in trying to assure county commissioners and the Tourist Development Council that the stadium will have a fixed construction cost and run in the black.

It's a significant attraction that a year-old tourism study suggested was unlikely. Plan to pay for either debt service or an annual operating deficit with any tourism-related construction project, the report from KPMG indicated.

Thursday, Dempsey, with an assist from representatives of the Women's Tennis Association, the United States Tennis Association, architects, builders and his own staff members, painted such a rosy financial picture, commissioners wondered privately why the county wouldn't be sharing in the eventual proceeds.

It is an unrealistic expectation. In essence, the county will keep the money. Projected operating surpluses remain with the nonprofit organization running the stadium to finance upkeep, meaning future allocations from the county's tourist tax shouldn't be required. But even the suggestion that the county get a cut shows how far this idea has evolved. A year ago, the concerns surrounded deficit spending and unanticipated tournament sponsorship fees.

The proposal from Saddlebrook contains several strong attributes:

Construction cost has been capped at $5.7-million. The contractors are responsible for any overruns.

The price leaves an estimated $900,000 in the tourism kitty for capital projects. That means the county could finance a smaller proposal now or begin saving for a second, bigger project. Since the stadium plan does not require borrowing, the county also has the option to bond against future tourism tax proceeds and move immediately on another project.

Dempsey said the stadium will not require help from the county's tourism advertising budget -- 40 percent of the annual tax proceeds. That should please backers of other tourist spots and community events. The county had previously committed $750,000 over 10 years to promote Pasco and Saddlebrook as the home of the Women's Tennis Association, an expenditure that disappeared when the relocation failed to materialize.

The stadium is a viable way to increase tourism. Professional tennis events likely will be accompanied by increased bookings at Saddlebrook and other hotels that are expected to pop up near the stadium site. It has not been determined whether the competing idea for the tourism money, a youth sports and civic festival center, would bring a significant increase in the number of overnight guests to the county.

Private land owner Lee Arnold has volunteered to donate 15 acres for the stadium. The site fronts the proposed extension of State Road 56, which Arnold's partner must build as part of the Meadow Pointe IV development. Cost to the county to obtain necessary right of way from the adjoining property owner, the Porter family's Wiregrass Ranch, is estimated at up to $800,000.

Dempsey, however, said another property owner has volunteered a site along State Road 54, and he said he expects more to do likewise. Site selection remains at the discretion of the County Commission.

Though not part of the formal proposal, Dempsey already hired his point person to recruit events to the stadium. The aggressive posture to begin scheduling dates is welcome amid the world of transient tennis tournaments. Likewise, Dempsey said the county shouldn't be expected to be responsible for tournament sponsorship fees, like those that cost the city of Delray Beach $250,000.

Commissioner Steve Simon, who is boosting the youth sports alternative, lamented Saddlebrook's total control over vendor selection and other operating decisions. But, that is standard. Asking Saddlebrook to cover any deficits while also seeking to tell Dempsey how to operate the stadium is impractical. Unsettled details could be ironed out during contract negotiations between the county and Saddlebrook.

Dempsey should be commended for accomplishing his stated goal to "present the opportunities to you and let you dream."

To be overcome are the parochial interests and competing senses of self-entitlement. There is strong public opinion that the tourism money should be spent in west Pasco because of the population base there. Dempsey counters by noting his resort is the biggest collector of the tourist tax in the county. Neither argument should sway the commission's final decision.

Still, perception should not be ignored. Dempsey's numerous references to "my stadium" didn't escape commissioners. He presented a tempting proposal. But, if the county proceeds, Dempsey would be wise to remember it is the public's stadium, not his.

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