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Pasco Tribune

Porters' proposal surprises officials

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 09:57 PM

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WESLEY CHAPEL -

J.D. Porter has been the face of Wiregrass Ranch as the former cattle ranch transformed into the economic hub of central Pasco.

Under Porter's leadership, the family has seen the opening of a $150 million hospital and wellness center. A new college campus is under construction, and Raymond James Financial announced plans to relocate its local offices to Wiregrass.

But it hasn't all been smooth sailing for Porter. In the past year, the 34-year-old developer led failed negotiations with Pasco County to develop and manage a proposed $14 million youth sports complex. He was a vocal critic of County Administrator John Gallagher, and frequently accused him of trying to "torpedo" the deal.

So when county commissioners asked again for proposals to manage the complex, they were a bit surprised that Wiregrass resubmitted its bid. After all, four months ago commissioners accepted a major land donation for the project from the Porters because the family no longer wanted to be involved with running the complex.

"After all the discussions last year, it was very surprising," Commissioner Henry Wilson said.

Factor in that Porter has been arrested three times in the past two years on alcohol-related charges and some commissioners are questioning whether they want to enter into another negotiation with Wiregrass.

"You can't help but to have those concerns," Chairman Ted Schrader said. "I'm certain the family is having internal discussions now about who is going to be their representative and spokesman. I suppose they're concerned for J.D.'s well-being. And it is a private matter, but they're going to need to be prepared to provide answers to us as to who's going to be the point person."

Porter was charged with DUI and refusing to take a breath test following his Feb. 17 arrest. He pleaded not guilty and requested a jury trial.

The State Attorney's Office dropped domestic battery and felony mischief charges against Porter in August after deputies said he had an alcohol-fueled fight with his live-in girlfriend on July Fourth weekend. He was also charged with DUI in May 2011 but pleaded no contest to a lesser charge of reckless driving. He was sentenced to one year supervised probation and 50 hours of community service. He completed DUI school in January 2012.

"It will be in the back of our minds when we're considering the bids," Wilson said.

Commissioner Jack Mariano said the arrests are a red flag. "Anytime you're going to spend considerable taxpayer money, all things need to be factored in," he said.

Commissioners are set to discuss separate proposals to design and manage the 220-acre complex Tuesday.

Seven firms submitted proposals to design the project. Bids for construction will come at a later date.

Commissioner Pat Mulieri said she was "surprised and confused" by the Porters' decision to rebid on the management of the project. And Schrader, who was heavily involved in salvaging the agreement for the land donation, said he, too, was caught off guard.

"At the same time, I'm grateful we have at least two bids to consider," Schrader said.

Mulieri said Porter's recent tangles with the law wouldn't immediately disqualify the family's bid. "You have to separate the personal from the professional," she said. "I think his father is still involved, and the brother is still involved. They're a big family."

Commissioner Kathryn Starkey declined to comment on Porter's involvement. "I haven't seen the bid, so I don't even know what his role would be. He's not the only Porter," she said.

Porter did not respond to multiple interview requests from the Tribune.

Wiregrass Sports teamed up with Diamond Nation and Turf Solutions Group for the management proposal, which has not been released to the public.

The other bidder to manage the project is Blue Marble Strategic, headed by former hotel executive James Talton.

Talton was involved in negotiations last fall with Hillsborough County for a 22-field baseball and softball complex in Lithia called "World of Sports."

Rich Reidy, aide to Hillsborough Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, said discussions with the group "went silent" in November, around the same time Pasco Commissioners decided to reissue the bids for the Wiregrass project.

"There was a lot of interest, and he was doing a lot of the legwork, then it kind of disappeared," Reidy said.

The Lithia project was described as a "premier tournament venue that will cater to players from age 9 and up through college," according to the project overview. "The other tournament venues available are limited to only a few weeks of the year due to their harsh winter climates."

The Hillsborough complex would have been privately financed. It also would have included a 6,500-seat professional stadium, a hotel and on-site dormitory-style accommodations for players. Pasco County has not released the details of Blue Marble's bid for Wiregrass.

Reidy said the Wesley Chapel location could be "more conducive" to that type of facility. The Lithia site, in addition to being remote, is adjacent to a county landfill.

"It had its challenges with the amount of water they could pump from the ground because of the proximity to the landfill," he said. "Even if they used (artificial) turf, they would have needed water for the dormitories."

Talton worked for the Marriott Corporation 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.


lkinsler@tampatrib.com (813)371-1852 Twitter: @lkinslerTBO

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