By Kyle LoJacono
Pasco County commissioners figured why build one park when they could have two.
The board submitted two unanimous 5-0 votes to fund the construction of a pair of new county parks — one in Wesley Chapel near The Shops at Wiregrass and the other in Aripeka in Pasco’s northwest corner.
“Two 5-0 votes,” said chairwoman Ann Hildebrand. “Who saw that coming?”
Hildebrand’s sentiments refer to the on-again, off-again scenarios the county has had during the last three years as it tried to build a large sports complex.
The original plans were to fund such a facility in Odessa near Starkey Park, which would have been run by Sportsplex USA. The California-based company agreed to operate the complex, but backed out of the deal earlier this year.
The commissioners had been looking for a new place to spend $11 million earmarked for generating tourism within Pasco. The original plan was to spend the entire pot developing the Wesley Chapel complex, which will be called Fields at Wiregrass.
However, Commissioner Jack Mariano, whose District 5 includes Aripeka, became an outspoken supporter of building a wakeboarding park with part of the money available.
“It’s better to have two parks bring people to Pasco than just one,” Mariano said.
The new plan is to spend $2.5 million at the Aripeka park and put the remaining $8.5 million into the Wesley Chapel site. The west coast facility would cater to extreme sports enthusiasts, while the east Pasco complex will have multiple fields to draw in large sports tournaments as well as families.
The wakeboarding park will use a fixed cable system to pull people around a lake and through obstacles like ramps and rails.
Commissioner Ted Schrader had been against the Aripeka site, but changed his tune after hearing a presentation from its designers in late November.
“I’m intrigued enough to see if we can make it happen,” Schrader said. “I’m convinced there are probably people who would be happy to come out there and spend their money.”
Hildebrand said there is one lingering question with the extreme park that has yet to be answered.
“I’d like to know how much liability we have if someone gets hurt,” Hildebrand said. “I like the idea, but I still have a lot of unanswered questions.”
Mariano said there wouldn’t be any more liability than if someone got hurt at one of the more conventional facilities like the Land O’ Lakes Recreation Complex or the future Fields at Wiregrass.
The decision by the commissioners does put some question into how the future Wesley Chapel sports complex will look. The Porter family, the owners of the original Wiregrass Ranch, submitted a proposal to build a 160-acre, $25-million facility just north of The Shops at Wiregrass along Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.
The project called for 12 multiuse fields for football, soccer, lacrosse and other sports activities to support large regional and national tournaments. It also includes three MLB-regulation sized baseball fields and another three for Little League games.
Other amenities would have included fishing areas, hiking trails and a dock to launch canoes and kayaks, but all plans were based on the idea that the county would kick in $11 million.
Wiregrass developer J.D. Porter, the son of the ranch’s original owner Don, said he was pleased with the vote even if it did not give Fields at Wiregrass exactly what he was asking for.
“This allows us the flexibility to come up with a business plan that makes sense,” Porter said.
Porter said his family envisions a complex similar to Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, which hosts more than 40 youth sports events annually.
While the county will pay for part of the construction, the Porters would handle the operating costs and any additional money needed to build the complex. Plans call for some level of public access, but other areas will be operated as a private business.
Porter’s plan included requiring teams competing in events at the complex to stay at hotels within Pasco, which would generate additional tax revenue for the county. He added it would take two years to build the complex, which could be ready to host tournaments by spring break in 2014.
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