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Action likely for tennis stadium plan

At least three of five commissioners support the Saddlebrook Resort proposal and want to move ahead with it.

By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 3, 2002

A tennis stadium proposal by Saddlebrook Resort likely will get approval by the County Commission during its meeting tonight in New Port Richey after three of the five commissioners reached Monday said they'll support it.

Commissioner Pete Altman said Monday that he plans to suggest that the county staff begin drawing up a contract with Saddlebrook and start trying to identify several possible sites for the $5.7-million complex.

"Let's bring this thing to completion," Altman said as he summarized his feelings. "Here's the deal; here are the locations; and then ultimately, there would be at least one more meeting to authorize the contract."

Tonight's meeting starts at 6:30 at the West Pasco Government Center on Little Road about a mile south of Ridge Road.

Saddlebrook has proposed building a stadium with room for up to 5,000 seats in a complex with 14 other tennis courts and parking spaces that could double as soccer fields. The $5.7-million earmarked to build the complex comes from tourism taxes on hotel stays.

Saddlebrook owner Tom Dempsey has assured the commission that not another dime of county money would go into the center once it's built. Saddlebrook will form a nonprofit arm to run the center. Money made at the center would be funneled back into operating funds.

Access to the site proposed by Dempsey hinges on the extension of State Road 56. But a disagreement between two developers could tie up construction on the road. Two weeks ago, the commission gave the landowners 90 days to reach an agreement.

Commissioner Ann Hildebrand said the road to the site is important. Though she supports the plan to move ahead with the tennis stadium, she says contract and site talks are crucial to a final agreement.

"You're approving the concept to go forward with negotiations; and if that doesn't work out, we don't have a deal," Hildebrand said.

Commissioner Ted Schrader said he also planned to vote for a tennis contract.

Commissioner Steve Simon, meanwhile, said he'll stick to his guns and vote against the tennis stadium.

"I still think it's a bad idea," he said.

Simon has backed an alternative idea: using tourism tax dollars to build a multipurpose sports facility to draw regional and statewide tournaments while creating a space for local youth sports and civic functions.

Last month, the commission came close to approving his idea to solicit proposals to build such a facility. But when he put a $5.7-million price tag on it, stating it would compete with the tourism dollars designated for the tennis stadium, all the other commissioners but Mulieri backed off.

On Monday, Hildebrand and Schrader said they still would support getting proposals for the sports complex as long as the money would come from future tourism dollars and not compete with the tennis project.

Altman said no tourism dollars should be used on the multipurpose sports complex. Instead it should be considered in the context of the county's parks and recreation master plan with bond money and other financing.

He thinks remaining and future tourism dollars should be used to help jumpstart several projects, including ecotourism on the county's west side.

"I'm not willing to commit to move in a direction just so we can use tourism dollars to build ball fields for the local community, something we should be doing anyway," Altman said. "Until we pursue those (parks and recreation) plans, I find any discussion of youth sports to be disingenuous."

Commissioner Pat Mulieri could not be reached Monday for comment.

-- 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 .

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