By B.C. Manion
Picture, if you will, thousands of soccer, baseball, softball and lacrosse players streaming into Wesley Chapel to test their skills in their respective sports.
Many of those players and their families would stick around for a few days, competing in tournaments, staying overnight at area hotels, doing a little shopping and eating at local restaurants.
That’s what Pasco County officials envision will happen with the Fields at Wiregrass, a proposed sports complex that would have 12 fields for soccer and lacrosse and eight fields for baseball and softball.
The proposal came a step closer to reality on April 24, when the Pasco County Commission voted unanimously to allocate up to $14 million for the project.
“We’re on track now to deliver a world-class facility to Pasco County,” said J.D. Porter, whose family owns the land where the complex would be built, following the board’s vote.
The Porters would operate and maintain the complex, under an agreement with the county.
The deal is not entirely sealed.
In addition to setting a spending cap on the project, commissioners directed their staff to iron out the details of the deal with the Porters. Some issues not yet resolved include how much fill dirt the Porters would need to provide for the project, how the county would handle traffic and development phasing issues connected to future construction within the Wiregrass Ranch Development of Regional Impact and how much escrow the county would require the Porters to set aside in the event the sports complex project fails at some point in the future.
“It’s going to be a diamond for the area,” said Jeff Miller, economic development chairman of the Greater Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce.
The new sports complex would bolster the local economy with both short-term and long-term impacts, Miller said.
In the near term, it would produce more business for the local economy. In the long haul, it will help create a favorable perception of the area, making it more attractive to potential employers.
“If you pay attention to what’s happening in the area this is a huge step,” Miller said.
While the board unanimously approved proceeding with negotiations, Commissioners Henry Wilson and Jack Mariano initially balked at earmarking nearly all of the county’s tourism tax dollars for the proposed complex.
Other commissioners said the time for action had come.
“It’s time to get off the dime,” said Commission Chairwoman Ann Hildebrand.
“I think we have to move – stop talking and start doing,” said Commissioner Pat Mulieri. “Wesley Chapel is an economic engine for Pasco County. Sometimes you have to take a stand.’’
Ted Schrader, commission vice chairman, put it like this: “The intent of the tourist tax was to build a marquee facility.”
The Fields at Wiregrass could accommodate more than 2,000 teams for tournaments annually, said Jason Payne, of Turf Solutions Group LLC, a company that specializes in these developments.
The baseball and softball fields could handle up to 64 teams each day. The fields would have all-weather “CoolMax” synthetic turf infields, and natural turf outfields with professional irrigation and drainage, features that would eliminate most rainouts, Payne said.
The soccer and lacrosse fields will support up to 100 teams per day.
The proposed agreement between the county and the Porters calls for making the fields available to local teams 25 percent of the time.
The sports complex is expected to attract more than 60,000 players, coaches and family members to tournaments, resulting in more than 100,000 hotel room nights each year.
In addition to the fields, the facility would have a check-in area, food service facilities, a player activity center, pavilions, shaded bleachers, practice areas, webcam field cameras and child play areas, Payne said.
Payne said his company has worked in more than 40 states from coast to coast on sports complexes and plans to assist The Fields at Wiregrass throughout the process. He said his company has learned from other facilities and plans to incorporate best practices into the Fields at Wiregrass.
The lacrosse fields at the new complex would enable the county to meet its pledge to provide additional lacrosse fields – which was part of a deal the county worked out with NDP Lacrosse, which manages the Dick’s Sporting Goods Tournament of Champions in Wesley Chapel.
The county had been in danger of losing that tournament to IMG Academies, an elite athletic training facility in Bradenton. IMG had offered a number of enticements and also boasted 17 fields at one location versus 14 fields at two locations in Wesley Chapel.
The lacrosse tournament, held in Wesley Chapel since 2008, draws about 80 teams from the United States and Canada.