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A Times Editorial

Tennis plan aces youth sports proposal

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 3, 2002

This evening Pasco County commissioners can accept a proposal from Saddlebrook owner Tom Dempsey as the best use of its tourism tax dollars or it can hold out for something better, if such a thing exists. The only alternative, so far, is an ill-defined amateur sports/multipurpose facility, the primary audience for which seems to be local residents.

Accepting the first idea does not preclude the second, but commissioners should re-examine their own inclination toward tourism self-sufficiency if they want to pursue a second venture to accompany a tennis stadium in Wesley Chapel.

The pluses of the $5.7-million tennis stadium are well-documented. Construction costs are capped. It is to be built on donated land. It is to be owned by the county, but managed by a local concern, Dempsey, who promises to cover any operating losses and whose track record in turning a former pasture into a world-class golf and tennis resort is unmatched in Pasco County.

It is expected to increase bookings at Saddlebrook and other nearby motels, which produces greater tourist tax revenues. Notably, it will not exhaust capital spending for tourism in the county. At least $900,000 will remain in the so-called bricks-and-mortar fund, and since the tennis stadium requires no borrowing, the county can plan its next project.

The stadium is listed as a discussion item for tonight's commission meeting, but Commissioner Peter Altman said Monday he will seek the board's support to begin contract negotiations with Dempsey and whatever landowners are interested in donating a site. Approving that motion is a logical step for the commission, which would not be committing itself to final approval.

The county is seeking multiple sites because the land offered by Lee Arnold is in limbo. Arnold is at an impasse with the neighboring landowner, the Wiregrass Ranch, over the timeline for extending State Road 56 in Wesley Chapel. Without the new road, the stadium site has no east-west access.

Opponents have seized on that potential delay as a reason to push an alternative to the tennis stadium. Commissioner Steve Simon touted the sports market that is the focus of neighboring Polk County's tourism efforts for the past 10 years.

Except Polk County did not spend the capital dollars from its tourist tax on youth sports. It refurbished three major league spring training stadiums and remodeled the Lakeland Center, home to athletic competitions, concerts and other events. Spending for recreational sports fields came from other sources, including a $6-million commitment from Polk County government's general fund. Likewise, Pasco commissioners need to be cognizant of the ancillary spending. Polk budgets $900,000 in tourism money annually to promote sports facilities and to lure events. Polk recently asked sports promoters to focus on more homegrown events because of the expense of recruiting tournaments.

Promotional costs are of particular note considering Pasco spends 40 percent of its annual tourist tax proceeds marketing eco-tourism opportunities, and pushing events and facilities like the Pioneer Florida Museum and the Flapjack Festival. Dempsey has said he won't tap that advertising budget to promote the tennis stadium.

Promoting Pasco as a competitive sports destination might be a workable in tandem with a professional tennis stadium.

Commissioners could move in that direction by seeking a second feasibility study of youth sports, as Simon has suggested.

But sticking to the original priority, self-sufficiency for any tourism attraction, seems to preclude such an endeavor. A consultant said as much last year and recommended the county use its parks and recreation master plan to expand its facilities if it wanted to be host to youth sports tournaments and other competitions.

The commission would be wise not to ignore that advice.

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