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Saturday, May 26, 2018
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Baseball complex plan thrown a curve

WESLEY CHAPEL - Blue Marble Strategic founder James Talton is feeling a bit forgotten these days. After all, it has been four months since Pasco County commissioners picked his company to develop a $34 million baseball complex at Wiregrass Ranch. And Talton, who will put up most of the money, is waiting for the county to send him a lease so they can begin negotiations in earnest. “We’re at the cusp, and I want to get to the next step,” he said. He had hoped to get the lease approved before County Administrator John Gallagher retired at the end of May.
“It would be a nice legacy for him to end on,” Talton noted a month ago. That legacy would be one of the nation’s largest youth baseball complexes, with 20 fields and a 5,000-seat stadium. The plans also call for an athletes’ village to accommodate up to 100 traveling teams. Talton said he’s not complaining. “We made the decision to invest time, money and effort into this project into perpetuity so we will be here regardless of how long it takes,” he said. But he is reluctant to spend more money on the project until the county delivers a lease. “My next investment is $10,000 to get a 3D animated model that we can put on brochures and websites,” he said. “If someone would just tell me it’s going to happen, I would spend that $10,000 right now. I think about it every day — ‘Do I make that next step?’ I never mind taking a risk, but I don’t want to be stupid.” What goes unmentioned is Pasco County’s history of failing to bring major sports tourism projects to fruition. The county has been collecting hotel taxes for two decades and generated millions of dollars. But three previous plans for a tennis stadium or sports complex fell apart during lease negotiations. Talton and partner Ray Pichardo’s concept and their business plan differ from the prior incarnations because they’ve pledged two-thirds of the funding. Pasco County would contribute $11 million, including $9 million from tourist development funds. Talton, a former hotel developer, said he can’t begin presales, let alone approach investors, until he has a lease in hand. Assistant County Attorney Jane Fagan said she could not focus on the Blue Marble lease until the county owned the 138-acre parcel in Wiregrass — and those negotiations took six months. The county closed on the land, which was donated by the Porter family, April 30. She told Talton last week it could be another month before she forwards a draft to him. “Unfortunately, we’ve had so much going on this last month, especially with the transition, I haven’t been able to dedicate as much time on the lease agreement as much as I had hoped,” Fagan said. “I’m still working my way through it.” The board’s selection of Irving (Texas) City Manager Tommy Gonzalez to succeed Gallagher has also influenced the timeline. Gonzalez has not accepted the job, and if he does it could be August or September before he starts. Michele Baker, Gallagher’s chief assistant, is serving as acting county administrator in the interim. “Obviously, we’re in a transition and I haven’t gotten any direction from Mrs. Baker or the board,” Fagan said. “They may want Mr. Gonzalez to review it and give his input, but at this point I’m continuing to move forward with the draft. He may not want to change anything.” Fagan said getting the land, valued at $8.7 million, was an important step for the county and for Blue Marble. “They couldn’t finalize their financing until we had the land,” she said. “We have made significant progress on this project. It just hasn’t trickled down to them yet.” In the meantime, Talton and Pichardo are getting to know the “neighbors.” Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel CEO Brian Adams invited the duo for a personal tour of the hospital and its adjoining wellness center. Connie Bladen, executive director of the hospital’s foundation, joined them for the tour. “It’s a fabulous facility,” Talton said. “Brian and Connie were great. We see all kinds of synergies.” He hasn’t reached out yet to the Porters, the developers of Wiregrass Ranch who donated the land for the park. “When I have that (lease) signed, I’ll call the Porters within 24 hours,” Talton said. “They’re very important players and we need to make sure we’re on the same page.”

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