DADE CITY — Pasco County commissioners took a major step in becoming Florida’s baseball mecca — voting unanimously Tuesday to approve a contract with Blue Marble Strategic to build a $34-million, 19-field sports complex at Wiregrass Ranch.
“We’re elated — ecstatic,” Blue Marble founder James Talton said. “We look calm, but inside, we’re jumping up and down.”
The massive project includes nine Major League Baseball regulation-sized fields and a stadium, plus 10 youth-sized fields. The number of fields is more than sufficient to attract an MLB spring training site to Pasco, he said.
With a signed contract in hand, Talton can officially reach out to the Toronto Blue Jays, Houston Astros and other MLB teams that are shopping around for a new spring training site. “I know Florida would love for us to be able to steal back one of the Cactus League (Arizona) teams,” he said.
The contract took a year to negotiate, and County Administrator Michele Baker made some last-minute tweaks last Friday, bumping the level of revenue sharing from 2-percent to 3-percent. Baker offset the increase by extending the initial term of the contract from 30 years to 45 years.
“Even though we were on opposing sides of the table with (Tourism Director Ed Caum) and Michele, I feel like we’re on the same side. I feel like we make a great team,” Talton said.
Pasco County would contribute $11 million, including $8.5 million from tourist development funds. Blue Marble must come up with its share of the funding - $23 million - in the next six months. “We’re 100-percent confident we’ll be able to get the financing,” Talton said.
Talton said Blue Marble has revised its site plan after the size of the park was scaled down to about 120 acres. Space restrictions forced them to add a parking deck and multi-level dormitories to house visiting athletes.
The parking deck would have retail shops, concessions and training facilities — including batting cages — on the ground level, Talton said. The dorms would feature a full-service restaurant and sports bar for spectators and a cafeteria for visiting athletes. Preliminary designs even call for practice fields on the roof and a players’ lounge with comfy sofas and gaming consoles.
The company had to reduce the number of fields from 21 to 19, including the stadium. The fields will be artificial turf, and can all be converted for softball, soccer and lacrosse.
Blue Marble would build and maintain jogging trails, picnic shelters and playgrounds that are free and open to the public. Pasco residents will receive at least a 10-percent discount on admission to any sporting events.
While there was consensus on the board, Chairman Jack Mariano, who has been a skeptic of the Wiregrass project, objected to the county spending $2.5 million of park impact fee money to build roads and infrastructure for the park — which is only open to county residents on a limited basis. He said the money should have been spent to add more fields to the Wesley Chapel District Park, which hosts the county’s largest sporting event: the Dick’s Sporting Goods Lacrosse Tournament of Champions.
He asked commissioners to consider reimbursing the park fund with either revenue sharing from Blue Marble or with Penny for Pasco money.