Pasco County’s business partnership with James Talton to build a massive baseball park in the Wiregrass Ranch area is over. At least for now.
The county commission voted unanimously to terminate an agreement with Talton’s Pasco Sports LLC after the company failed to provide necessary paperwork to show it had $3 million available to help with the design stage of the project that would’ve built nearly 20 baseball fields as well as dormitories to attract the youth baseball camp industry to Pasco. Talton and retired Major League Baseball player Gary Sheffield wanted to build the complex on 100 acres of land, not far from Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel, which they said could become a significant youth sports training destination.
The county will now explore the possibility of advertising the land to a new private developer, and work out a different deal that could still focus on baseball, but maybe other amenities as well. County administrator Michele Baker, however, still left the door open for Talton and Sheffield, saying it’s possible for the two to come back to the table under a new structure.
“We can all look at this not as a failure, but as an opportunity for us to find something that is going to be a perfect fit and a mix for Pasco County,” commission chair Ted Schrader said right before the vote late Tuesday. “We have a great asset that is not going anywhere.”
The Wiregrass Ranch area and the potential to do something with the land there, Schrader said, is exciting for the county, because it “is the corner of Main and Main, and we are blessed and fortunate to have such a fine opportunity to do that.”
Finding private financing for what was at one time a $70 million project has been troublesome under the current agreement with the county, Talton has said, and he was willing to move forward with the project without the county’s involvement, or its $11 million in pledged tourist tax dollars.
“In our minds, this is just another step in the process, and we have every intention of getting this project completed,” Talton said last week. “The current agreement is being terminated. I literally cannot work based on the current financing environment. We will negotiate new terms and have financing in place upon execution so we can move forward immediately.”
The biggest stumbling block was land, Talton had said in the past. The county would continue to own the land that was deeded to it by the Porter family — the developers behind Wiregrass Ranch. However, one sports consultant told county officials Tuesday that there may be a little more to it than that.
“He didn’t have the proven track record,” Dev Pathik, chief executive of Sports Facilities Advisory, told commissioners of Talton. “The potential partners, while they expressed interest, they were not ready to sign on and take any risk.”
Land, Pathik said, does not hold the collateral value with investors it used to.
“The banks have learned they don’t want to own dirt,” he said.
As Pasco appears to go back to the start in planning a potential sports complex that could attract visitors to the county, Hillsborough County has teased some thoughts about possibly partnering to build a competing facility to the south. J.D. Porter, who represents the land holdings of Wiregrass Ranch, says Pasco officials shouldn’t worry, and not rush into anything because of what others might say.
“Every single time this comes up for a vote, Hillsborough County says they are going to do something,” Porter said. “Have they? They haven’t. We have played into that as a county for a long time, and we have been a little step-brother.
“They haven’t delivered. You have your own asset that far outweighs anything they have in their portfolio, and you have to look at that as having a chip they don’t possess. You are ahead of the game, and you are taking steps right now that has much more of a reality of a business plan that is not a pipe dream.”
In fact, Porter said if he was sitting in a Hillsborough commission board room right now, “I would be a lot more fearful than you guys should be.”
The original agreement signed a year ago called for Pasco Sports to provide the county verification of $23 million in financing necessary to design and construct the park by last summer. However, that agreement was amended in July to give Talton and Sheffield a 90-day extension.
It was during that period that Pasco Sports provided a $3 million commitment letter from Hallmark Mergers & Acquisitions LLC, along with a letter from Florida EB-5 Regional Center LLC saying it was committed to raising $20 million in funds.
County officials, however, didn’t feel that was enough to meet the terms of the agreement, and the commission then gave Talton and Sheffield until Dec. 5 to at least show they had $3 million available for the project. That deadline passed, however, with a letter from Talton proposing a new plan that would eliminate the need for the $11 million county contribution — but also remove payouts to the county after it’s built — but nothing in terms of the $3 million.
That prompted Baker to recommend the entire deal be cancelled.
Talton told members of the Greater Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce last October that his project — consisting of 19 baseball fields, dormitories and other sports-related amenities — could create an estimated 8,000 jobs and a $318 million annual economic impact boost to the county.