Women's tennis picks Pasco
By JAMES THORNER
© St. Petersburg Times,
The allure of a world-renowned resort and lobbying by top players have persuaded the Women's Tennis Association to move its headquarters to the Saddlebrook Resort in Pasco County.
Saddlebrook's promise of a 13,000-square-foot office building for the WTA, paired with a $5- to $7-million public tennis arena Pasco is considering building in Wesley Chapel, would transform the county into a tennis mecca.
Saddlebrook, home to Jennifer Capriati, Martina Hingis and the Harry Hopman Tennis Academy, beat out St. Petersburg, Atlanta and Charleston, S.C., in the competition for the WTA.
As the governing body of the women's professional tennis tour, the association manages more than $50-million in prize money at 64 tournaments in 33 countries.
The organization runs a corporate headquarters in Stamford, Conn., and a tour management office in St. Petersburg but will consolidate operations in one location in 2002.
Saddlebrook's worldwide reputation in the sport, combined with its resort atmosphere conducive to WTA functions, proved decisive with the association's board of directors, which chose Saddlebrook during a meeting Saturday at Wimbledon.
"Saddlebrook is one of the world's leading tennis training facilities, an outstanding venue for corporate meetings and entertainment, and the home to many of our top players," WTA CEO Bart McGuire said in a news release Monday.
Saddlebrook's offer to build a 13,000-square-foot office building was something no other competing city could match. The 10-year deal will bring 35 to 40 employees to Pasco.
Even more enticing, the WTA's move to Saddlebrook could provide enough fuel to launch a 5,000-seat tennis stadium in Wesley Chapel. Saddlebrook owner Tom Dempsey wants Pasco officials to build an open-air stadium using more than $5-million in Pasco tourist tax proceeds stockpiled since 1991.
Dempsey said the WTA assured him it will bring a "major tournament" to the tentatively named Pasco National Tennis Center. The complex also would anchor Olympic tennis if Central Florida lands the 2012 Summer Games.
"It's an excellent project, and if you are polling the County Commission members, they were all on the record being very supportive," said Pasco Commission Chairman Steve Simon, who acknowledged he was leaning toward building the stadium.
The WTA's move to Saddlebrook is drenched in irony. Almost 11 years ago to the day, women's tennis announced it was shifting its headquarters from Miami to St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg snatched the crown from another competitor: Saddlebrook.
The WTA lodged itself in the four-story annex of the former Soreno Hotel at 133 First St. NE. But the glory days didn't last. In 1995, the WTA relocated its executives to Connecticut to be closer to corporate sponsors in the New York area.
St. Petersburg retained a stripped-down office housing an 18-person staff responsible for managing tournaments around the world.
In the competition for the WTA this year, Saddlebrook had greater resources at its command.
Pasco County commissioners agreed to give the group $750,000 for advertising over the next 10 years in exchange for billing as "Pasco County: Home to the WTA Tour." However, some national news stories about the search erroneously placed Saddlebrook in Tampa.
The $750,000 from Pasco was something St. Petersburg couldn't match, said Don Shea, executive vice president of the Downtown St. Petersburg Partnership.
Pinellas County sinks most of its tourist tax proceeds in minor league baseball in Dunedin and Clearwater.
Nor could St. Petersburg compete with Saddlebrook as a tennis resort. Instead, the city proposed a partnership with the Renaissance Vinoy Resort, the same business that hosted WTA events in the early 1990s.
Shea described the loss of the WTA as a "small but unfortunate thing." The city's main selling point had been its quality of life.
"It's a shame the WTA made a decision to move to an area that may not be as diverse and entertaining as downtown St. Pete," Shea said of Saddlebrook. "But they did it for good business reasons."
But after decades of playing second fiddle to Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, Pasco officials couldn't suppress elation at landing a clean industry such as professional tennis.
Simon said the WTA's relocation, combined with the prospect of internationally televised tournaments at the proposed tennis stadium, would create economic ripples still hard to fathom.
"It doesn't get much nicer for economic development," he said.
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