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Odessa’s Starkey Ranch project would include a school, park, theater

NEW PORT RICHEY — The Pasco County Commission and the school board are moving forward with a shared-use project at the Starkey Ranch development in the Odessa area that would incorporate a school, a park, a theater and a library all into one massive public facility.

“What you are going to see hasn’t been done anywhere else in the nation, potentially anywhere else in the world,” County Administrator Michele Baker said Tuesday just before the commission and the school board saw a presentation on plans for the project.

The project is a public-private partnership that also includes Wheelock Street Capital, a Connecticut-based equity firm that owns Starkey Ranch, which has been approved for 5,050 homes as well as commercial development.

Facilities that will be shared by the county and the school district are a 20,000-square-foot library, a 6,000 square-foot theater for live shows, a gymnasium, four tennis courts, four outdoor basketball courts, a track and field facility, a baseball/softball field, a playground, an open-play field and a concession stand with restrooms.

The park’s other amenities are to include a pavilion with picnic tables; six large multi-purpose fields for such sports as soccer, lacrosse and football; and 5,750 feet of trails.

“This is just amazing once you hear the details,” school board member Joanne Hurley said.

The commission and the school board are both scheduled to vote next week on whether to proceed with the project. No one from either side said anything Tuesday that indicated there would be any road blocks to approval.

The park would open in 2015. The school, which would be a three-story K-8 school, isn’t planned before 2018, but the library and theater could happen earlier than the school.

The county and the school district will share some of the costs, and also share revenue generated from such sources as the ticket surcharges, rental of facilities, advertising and possibly naming rights.

“This is such a great collaboration and a great use of public money,” said County Commissioner Kathryn Starkey, who said she hoped this would be the beginning of more such collaborations between the county and the school district.

School board member Cynthia Armstrong said a joint project makes sense because taxpayers see no difference between the county government and the school district anyway.

“We look at ourselves as two separate entities, but they do not,” she said.

With such a large project involving multiple partners, it’s almost inevitable that some elements will need tweaking later, Chief Assistant County Attorney David Goldstein said.

“We fully anticipate some parts of this are not going to work,” Goldstein said. “But if we don’t try, we’ll never know if it will succeed.”

There already were a few concerns. For example, the plan calls for the library to have unrestricted, unfiltered wireless connections for computers, as other public libraries in Pasco County do. That could be problematic since it will double as a school library, school board Chairwoman Alison Crumbley said. Schools typically have filters that limit the websites students can access.

Assistant Superintendent Ray Gadd said students who visit the library during school hours will be supervised. Starkey suggested it might be possible to have separate ways for students and the public to sign into the wireless system.

Some of the financing gets complicated, too, as different partners take on responsibility for different expenses.

For example, Wheelock Street Capital would pay for the maintenance and operation of the park the first two years, and would partially pay another six years as the county gradually assumed complete financial responsibility for that. The annual maintenance and operation costs are estimated to be $285,000.

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