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Saturday, Apr 21, 2018
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County spurs Porters' Wiregrass bid

DADE CITY - Pasco commissioners were not interested in restarting negotiations with the developers of Wiregrass Ranch for the management of a multimillion-dollar youth sports complex in Wesley Chapel. The board unanimously rejected the bid submitted by the Porter family, and elected to meet instead with a new bidder, Tampa's Blue Marble Strategic. "That's beautiful. I'm looking forward to meeting with them," said James Talton, managing director of Blue Marble. Scott Stromer, the county's purchasing director, told commissioners that accepting the Porters' bid would create a bad precedent because the family terminated negotiations for essentially the same project a few months earlier.
He also said the Porters' bid failed to include the required 10 percent matching funds, and it was inconsistent with the county's strategy because the partners wanted to choose their own design and construction firms. "The skinny of it is I'm recommending the rejection of the Wiregrass partnership for that reason," he said. Stromer recommended that County Administrator John Gallagher meet with the Blue Marble Strategic team to "fully vet the proposal and evaluate the viability and appropriateness of the terms and approach." Gallagher was asked to report back to the board in two weeks. "I like that recommendation," Chairman Ted Schrader said. He also liked Blue Marble's plan to concentrate on baseball exclusively in the first phase. "It looks like they have really come full circle to the type of complex former Commissioner Michael Cox proposed — with just baseball and softball." Schrader said the county could expand the Wesley Chapel District Park to meet the need for more soccer and lacrosse fields. "Maybe we'll be able to do both," he said. Blue Marble, headed by former hotel executive James Talton and fitness consultant Ramon Pichardo, proposes building 20 baseball fields plus a 5,000-seat stadium at Wiregrass for an estimated $34 million. "Though the annual growth rate of amateur soccer participation outpaces amateur baseball, amateur baseball is prolific and has an extremely reliable participant base with a proven long-term history," Talton wrote in the bid. "The number of amateur baseball players registered in some organized associations is estimated to be well in excess of 10 million nationwide." Talton said the project would be privately financed. The proposal calls for a $6 million contribution from Pasco County that would be in the form of utility and site development. "We were concerned about the direction the county was taking," Talton told the Tribune. He explained that a complex with a mix of eight baseball diamonds and 12 multipurpose fields wouldn't create enough of either type of field to set it apart from competing complexes. He said Florida already has 56 baseball parks with eight or more fields, but only seven have 14 or more fields and none have 20 or more fields. "In the U.S., there are only a few parks that have 20 or more fields," the proposal reads. "Cooperstown Dreams Park in Cooperstown, N.Y., is the largest and most successful with 23 fields and barrack-style, onsite accommodations. There are plans to build a 24-field complex on the site where the movie Field of Dreams was made." Talton and Pichardo were involved in negotiations last fall with Hillsborough County for a 22-field baseball and softball complex in Lithia called "World of Sports." They said Wiregrass Ranch is a more attractive location for the project. They contemplate multiple phases that would include a resort hotel and a future spring training facility for Major League Baseball. Gallagher said he's looking forward to the meeting with Blue Marble officials. "I think it's a great idea — if they've got the money to build it," he said. Talton worked for Marriott for 17 years, including five years as finance director for the Tampa Westshore Marriott, Tampa Airport Marriott and the Tampa Bay Area Shared Services. He assisted in the pre-opening financing for the Marriott Waterside and the company's hotel and casino in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Talton spent the past eight years as senior vice president with Mainsail Development Group, where he oversaw the completion of the Scrub Island Resort in the British Virgin Islands. Pichardo has owned and operated a construction company, a real estate development firm and a group of Mexican restaurants. He also has experience playing and coaching professional and college baseball, and he currently works as a fitness instructor.

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