County officials hope attorneys can reach an agreement that opens the way for Pasco’s largest sports complex, 80 acres of sod and soil for a dozen soccer fields and eight baseball diamonds envisioned as a key to unlocking millions in tourist revenue.
County attorneys and those for the family that owns Wiregrass Ranch are supposed to reach an agreement by July 24 that will clear the way for construction crews to start work on the Fields at Wiregrass that will be part of a 2,000-unit housing development in the fast-growing east side of the county.
The first part of the deal covers details of what the Porter family, owners of Wiregrass Ranch, will do to run and maintain the 20 diamonds and fields, said Eric Keaton, public communications manager for the county's office of tourism development.
Keaton said he hopes any negotiation kinks can be smoothed so work can move ahead on the complex. There is a pent-up need for more fields and diamonds to accommodate a hungry demand to serve amateur athletic events such as the Dick's Sporting Goods Tournament of Champions national lacrosse event that hits Pasco at the end of December.
“We’ve seen a growing demand, especially for lacrosse and soccer," Keaton said. "We need those fields yesterday.”
The park could get wrapped up in other parts of negotiations between the county and Porter family about the development, such as what roads developers have to build and when.
Under the basics of the park agreement, the Porter family would run and maintain the complex and seek out tournaments and events. Pasco County has committed $14 million to build the complex, taking about $11.5 million in tourist tax money that’s been accumulating since 1991 and $2.5 million in bond money.
The tax money comes from a 2-percent levy on hotel bills. This is the first major expenditure of the bed tax that can be used to promote tourism or build something to attract tourists but can’t be used to run or maintain facilities.
The county spends about $25,000 a year to keep up each of its athletic fields, Keaton said.
Pasco will also smooth the way with permitting and other details and help promote the events that are expected to draw thousands of visitors in the form of players and parents of the youngsters. The visitors will fill hotels and restaurants and stores, benefitting the county’s economy with each adult spending $143 a day and each child about half that, according to calculations by the Florida Sports Foundation that helps boost what’s become known as sports tourism.
Those events drew 30,703 people to the area and an economic impact of $7.8 million to Pasco County in the 2009-10 fiscal year, the foundation said.
The Wiregrass complex will have 12 fields that can be used for soccer, lacrosse, flag football and even archery. In addition there will be eight baseball diamonds that can host softball and youth baseball competition.
The fields will cover about 80 acres, Keaton said, leaving 120 acres of the park for trails, fishing, biking and kayaking.
The Fields at Wiregrass will let Pasco host more and larger tournaments in the sports tourism industry. Including Florda's professional teams, sports tourism pumped $3.6 billion in to the state's economy in 2005, when the economy was in high gear.
Still, the souring economy hasn’t withered the amateur side of the industry as much as has been felt by professional teams and in the theme park and beach-lover end of the business, said Nick Gandy, spokesman for the Florida Sports Foundation.
That’s because many of these tournaments involve children.
“Families can plan for these. They’re not a spur of the moment trip. And parents are going to give their child that opportunity to travel,” he said.
The December lacrosse tournament will be held this year at the Wesley Chapel District Park, the county’s largest facility, and at Wesley Chapel High School.
Keaton said the tournament fills hotel rooms with 1,600 players, 250 coaches plus spectators. In all, the crowd spends about $3 million to $4 million. There are so many people, eastern Pasco doesn’t have the hotel rooms to accommodate the crowd. Of the 80 teams, 65 come from outside Florida.
The event accounts for 3,700 room nights in hotels, an industry measurement of the number of nights hotel rooms are filled.
“We run out of room in the hotels. Some stream into Hernando and Hillsborough, but it’s a good problem to have,” he said.
Those are the types of events that Pasco may lure with enough space and ample fields. Though there will be times for the general public to use the fields, the complex will be in the business of bringing teams and tournaments to Pasco.
“This would be sports tourism first and that would have scheduling priority. You can’t have a major tournament every weekend, but there are smaller weekend tournaments that add up,” Keaton said.
The 20 athletic fields at Wiregrass would be a huge boost to the county’s inventory of places to host tournaments.
The county has only two competition-level softball complexes, each with three fields. The county doesn’t have enough baseball fields in one place to lure major competition, according to a Florida Sports Foundation study of Pasco’s resources done last year.
Most of Pasco’s sports tourism is focused on attracting outdoor events such as baseball and soccer, though there is a major demand for indoor venues to host sports as diverse as basketball and cheerleading competition.
Now, the county’s main site is the New Port Richey Recreation & Aquatic Center with two courts. Keaton said the center recently hosted a wrestling tournament, and the county tries to work with the center to draw more.
Still, most tournaments that can include volleyball, table tennis, Judo or weightlifting require three or four courts.