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Tennis stadium is star player in tourism plan

Officials hope the new $5.7-million stadium will draw world-class tournaments and thousands of spectators.

Published February 15, 2004

WESLEY CHAPEL - Pasco County is planting its hopes for international acclaim in a patch of old cow pastures behind Saddlebrook Resort.

In the coming year, this grassy 24-acre tract will be transformed into a sleek $5.7-million tennis stadium that officials hope will draw world-class tournaments and thousands of spectators.

County attorneys are still completing the contracts with Saddlebrook owner Tom Dempsy to build and operate the county-owned tennis stadium. Construction is expected to take nine to 12 months.

"Hopefully," County Attorney Robert Sumner said, "we'll be in business by the end of the year."

The County Commission picked this site over two others last June because it was closest to major roads and tourist accommodations. The property is just south of State Road 54, less than a mile east of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.

The site was carved out of Wiregrass Ranch, a 5,000-acre expanse where thousands of homes and 2.3-million square feet of stores and businesses are planned. The Porter family donated the 24-acre site, which was appraised at $408,000, county real estate manager Richard Sliz said.

The money to build the stadium will come from the county's tourism tax, a fee on hotel rooms and other short-term lodgings that pays for projects promoting tourism. Once the contracts are signed with Dempsy, a nonprofit arm of Saddlebrook will oversee construction and coordinate tournaments and other events at the stadium.

The complex will include 18 tennis courts and a grassy parking area that will double as soccer fields. The public will be able to use the fields and courts except during tournaments.

For now, attorneys are ironing out the details: Who has the naming rights to the stadium? How many parking spaces will it have? Can the stadium be built on the more visible east end of the property, even if that means paving over two isolated wetlands?

"I don't think there are any big issues, just a whole bunch of little minor issues that have to be resolved," Sumner said.

The Saddlebrook community already is home to tennis stars Jennifer Capriati and Martina Hingis. In the 1990s, Pete Sampras, then the top male tennis player in the world, trained at Saddlebrook, which runs the Harry Hopman Tennis Academy.

"Saddlebrook has already created a presence for itself in the international tennis arena," said Diane Jones, the county's tourism information coordinator. "By building this tennis stadium near Saddlebrook, it will allow us to piggyback on their popularity and their reputation."

Jones hopes the tennis tournaments will draw thousands of visitors - not only to the stadium, but to nearby hotels, restaurants and other attractions.

"Pasco County will benefit. The surrounding counties will benefit," Jones said. "There are so many factors, it's hard to pinpoint them all."

[Last modified February 15, 2004, 01:15:45]

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