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Wednesday, Jul 23, 2014
Tom Jackson

Jackson: Florida weather heats up Wiregrass Ranch baseball proposal

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NEW PORT RICHEY — On a morning when the rest of America was doing its best Frigidaire impersonation, leaving the I-heart-baseball crowd to ponder rumors from the hot stove league and notch another day closer to pitchers and catchers reporting for spring training, the balmy, let’s-play-two conditions that prevailed over west-central Florida were not lost on Pasco County lawmakers.

This national meteorological dichotomy, as pleasant as it was commonplace, contributed in no small way to the general Ernie Banks atmosphere that prevailed over the board’s quick-but-encouraging update on the ongoing courtship between Pasco County and Blue Marble Sports.

After all, in the future described by effervescent Blue Marble boss James Talton, one resonating with the percussion of aluminum bats and the aroma of linseed oil mingling with Coppertone and beef on a grill, on December days such as these, playing two would just be a beginning.

This assumes, of course, he’s able to close a deal with the county (involving about $11 million in tourist tax funds and impact fees) that would turn a patch of donated Wiregrass Ranch scrubland into a year-round mecca for diamond sports: 19 fields with dimensions ranging from Little League to the pros, eight practice infields, concession stands, a dormitory with a players’ lounge and a cafeteria with up to 1,000 seats, and covered spectator seating.

The gemstone – a 2,500-seat stadium expandable to 10,000 seats – introduces the potential to snag a Major League Baseball team interested in relocating its spring training address, but what Talton pitched Tuesday was a business model that doesn’t need the biggest boys of summer to succeed.

Commissioners shunted Talton’s presentation until the end of their morning session, putting it after talks about trails and parks (traditional and wake-boarding) and any number of ways to raise taxes (which is easy when only one of your members faces the voters next year), shoving Blue Marble’s moment right up against lunch appointments that could not be missed. Indeed, Pat Mulieri breezed out in the middle of an anecdote, while Kathryn Starkey endured wearing a gosh-look-at-the-time expression.

Don’t get the wrong idea. The other stuff led off and dominated because commissioners still haven’t solved how to fulfill their recreational ambitions for the county without alarming and mobilizing taxpayers. Reducing Talton’s moment to a squeeze play was an indicator of just how close everyone is to getting this project home.

For proof, look no further than Ted Schrader, the board’s resident skeptic. Responding to a minor rift over the facility’s tax treatment, Schrader said, “I hope you get that worked out, because I like the rest of [the proposal].”

This seems to be a widespread sentiment. Never mind the other nine facilities being built or already in place designed for similar purposes. Although Talton dashed through it like Desmond Jennings going from first to third on a single to right, his list of “uniqueness features” – those mentioned above, plus an abundance of mechanical batting cages, a general store and unparalleled weather – could not have failed to impress.

Joe Connor, described as an expert in sports facilities, raves: “ I honestly believe it will not only be an economic boon for the county but will also foster a sense of pride among its citizens, including inspiring its next generation of ballplayers.”

But it’s the folks closer to home who need to be on board, On that score, said Schrader, “It’s certainly baseball weather out there right now, as opposed to, say, Connecticut.” Or Cooperstown, N.Y., whose jam-packed 13-week summer season is the inspiration for the Blue Marble model.

“It’s why we think we can’t lose,” Talton says.

This would be a good moment to point out that Blue Marble would be shouldering more than two-thirds of the initial $34 million investment; that, by statute, the $9 million from tourist taxes has to be spent on a bricks-and-mortar project designed to increase overnight stays; and, according to Talton, demand for what amounts to year-’round camps for traveling diamond-sports teams (that means slow- and fast-pitch softball, too) more than outstrips supply, making possible a projected 2,200 full-time jobs and an annual $78 million economic impact.

We are certain the county’s economists are even now verifying the reliability of these last points, and are enthusiastically rooting for their findings and Talton’s numbers to be exceedingly close.

Because we’re betting Dec. 11, 2015, would be a great day to play two. Or even 20 times two.

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