tampabay.com

Tennis stadium gets $2.2M more

By DAVID DECAMP
Published March 28, 2007


NEW PORT RICHEY - With millions of tax dollars and the proposed tennis stadium on the line, Saddlebrook resort owner Tom Dempsey served an ace Tuesday.

The County Commission voted 5-0 to pay $2.2-million more for a 5,000-seat tennis stadium next to Saddlebrook in Wesley Chapel. The vote came less than five years after the board narrowly approved the project after assurances it would cost no more than $5.7-million.

But two critics embraced it Tuesday. Commissioner Michael Cox had pilloried the project as "welfare to the rich" as late as January. Commissioner Pat Mulieri was one of two votes against the stadium in late 2002, favoring a multi-sports complex instead.

Both said "the train has left the station" with the prior approval, and with the other three commissioners and County Administrator John Gallagher supporting the request for additional funds.

"What would I have achieved if I had voted against it?" Mulieri asked.

Cox said the project will be worthwhile because all $7.9-million for the stadium and 14 surrounding courts will come from the county's 2 percent tax on hotel stays, not property taxes. The tourism tax must pay for efforts to draw more visitors to Pasco.

He also said Dempsey was blameless for the rising costs. When the county switched sites for the project, more fill dirt and parking spaces were needed, and as costs went up, so did the consultants' fees.

"From a leadership standpoint, I just realized it was the right decision to make," Cox said of supporting the request for extra funding. "From a political perspective, I realize it wasn't."

Like Mulieri, Cox said the stadium deserved support because it will provide national attention for Pasco if big-name tournaments arrive.

Dempsey, whose resort enjoys national acclaim for catering to tennis stars, said officials with the U.S. Tennis Association and men's and women's pro tours have expressed support and interest. But no events are set yet.

"You can't lock up anything until you've got a stadium built," Dempsey said. He said a nonprofit arm of Saddlebrook created to run the stadium would be responsible for any more cost increases and the bill to run the complex.

As if underlining the risk, the Women's Tennis Association announced Tuesday that it will trim its top-tier tournaments from 26 to 20 in 2009 - the first season after Dempsey's fall 2008 target to complete construction.

The commission's approval came with a hitch, though. The land for the complex must be secured within 120 days.

The complex is supposed to sit on 24 acres the Porter family promised to donate from Wiregrass Ranch. But Don Porter and his attorney, Joel Tew, have resisted turning over ownership, officials said, because the county has not yet approved the 7,600-acre Wiregrass housing and business development.

Tew did not immediately return a message Tuesday, but County Attorney Robert Sumner said he is "99 percent sure" the county will take ownership in the coming months.

David DeCamp can be reached at 727 869-6232 or ddecamp@sptimes.com.

In other business

HUDSON SCHOOL: Commissioners approved the Pasco school district's proposal to build a 1,900-student high school in Hudson, despite neighbors' fears for traffic and safety. Some commissioners empathized with residents over the location, but said they were limited to determining whether the school was consistent with growth standards. The county and school officials must still work out who will pay for $4.6-million in necessary road improvements.

NO COMMENT: Commissioner Jack Mariano revisited a previous decision to put commissioners' pictures on comment cards for the public, which some had criticized as self-promotion. But other commissioners weren't as interested - evidenced by a spot of silence after he spoke. "Anyone have anything else to say?" Mariano asked. In the end, commissioner faces were left alone.

FIREWORKS POPPING: Commissioner Michael Cox wants to press forward on a county ordinance to restrict fireworks sales, even though the Legislature is considering bills that would block counties from tightening standards until next year. Cox noted the Florida House hasn't approved a bill yet. The county's Citizens Ordinance Review Committee will take up the proposed restrictions today.