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Tennis talks to focus on stadium site

The county is committed to building and paying for a world-class stadium, but the particulars are yet to be worked out.

By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 16, 2003

The ball is back in Pasco County's court in the ongoing talks about tennis.

After two years of debate, the County Commission in December voted to begin contract negotiations with Saddlebrook Resort to build a $5.7-million tennis stadium in Wesley Chapel with accumulated tourism tax money.

County staff members said contract talks will continue through February as they work with Saddlebrook to come up with a list of possible sites for the stadium.

Saddlebrook's original proposed site, to be donated by a landowner, hinges on the extension of State Road 56. But a disagreement between the landowner and another property owner could tie up construction on the road. County commissioners want the option to choose from several locations.

The stadium would seat up to 5,000 people and be surrounded by 14 other tennis courts and grass parking lots that could double as soccer fields. Saddlebrook owner Tom Dempsey guaranteed that the county would not have to pay more than $5.7-million, the cost to construct the complex. Cost overruns on building the stadium would be paid by contractor Turner Construction Co.

Dempsey recommends calling the entire complex the Pasco National Tennis Center. The county can sell the naming rights to the stadium itself. Saddlebrook Resort, home to tennis superstar Jennifer Capriati, agreed to manage the stadium through a nonprofit company and plans to fill it with world-class tournaments.

Dempsey has said that Saddlebrook, through local investors and the company's clout in the business world, would draw big events such as the Davis Cup and the Federation Cup. The county would not have to pay to attract them, Dempsey said.

It would be a self-sufficient complex, he said, and any losses will be guaranteed by one of the Saddlebrook companies.

According to Dempsey's proposal, he expects the stadium would generate an operating surplus of $355,000 a year by its fifth year through attracting big-money tennis tournaments as well as concerts and civic events. The profits would go back into expenses or improvements at the stadium.

The stadium complex would make money through rent: 12 percent of ticket sales for tennis events; concerts at $15,000 each; civic events at $5,000 each; and parking fees. The complex also would make money by the sale of naming rights and other sponsorships.

Dempsey told the commission there would be enough money from the county's tourist tax in the future to also build a multipurpose sports facility, an idea heavily backed by Commissioner Steve Simon. He voted with Commissioner Pat Mulieri against the tennis complex.

Simon wanted the county to spend the tax money on a facility with a broader appeal for local sports clubs and civic groups. Mulieri wanted the commissioners to seek a proposal for a multipurpose sports complex before deciding on tennis.

Dempsey told the commission that the tennis complex would have broad appeal outside of the world-class tournaments. For instance, it will host local tennis leagues and after-school programs, he said.

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