Orlando-based wakeboard park developer Patrick Panakos has built watersport parks all over the world, and he thinks Pasco County is sitting on a gold mine.
In a bid proposal, Panakos outlines how his team would convert a freshwater lake at the former SunWest mine into an extreme sports destination that would generate more than $1 million in its first year.
Pasco County commissioners sought bids for Sunwest and two other park sites: Starkey Ranch and Wiregrass Ranch. Panakos' company, , submitted the only bid for the SunWest site.
Wake parks use a system of fixed cables to pull water skiers and wakeboarders around a lake. There are ramps, rails and other obstacles. The sport is well established in Europe but still relatively new in the United States. There are 13 wakeboard parks in the United States; most are in Florida and Texas.
Panakos said his team has "the drive, ambition, creativity, innovation, networks, relationships, knowledge, skill sets, etc. to take wake parks in the United States to the next level."
According to the bid proposal, the Wake Park Project would consist of a pair of six-tower cable systems in the 313-acre park, which is adjacent to the future SunWest Harbourtown development. Panokos also is proposing a ropes course, zip line, beach volleyball and Frisbee golf.
He proposes teaming with Clearwater Canopy Tours, which dropped plans earlier this year to build a much-debated zip line course at Sand Key Park, to design and operate the ropes course.
The Wake Park Project would provide all equipment rentals, such as water skis, wakeboards, kayaks and paddle boards. Wake Park employees would be responsible for operating the cable systems and for cleaning park facilities. The company also would offer food and drink concessions, and would partner with retailer Boardco to run a pro shop that would sell everything from boards to sunscreen to beach towels.
"It's going to be phenomenal," said Commissioner Jack Mariano, the project's biggest cheerleader. "When I talk to kids about this park, they just get so pumped up."
Mariano said he visited wakeboard parks in Orlando and Seffner to get an idea of how they operate. "It really helps me to see it in person," he said.
Panakos said he would market the wakeboard park to college students, youth groups, tourists and business travelers. The park would offer camps, private parties and lessons. The minimum goal would be to serve 100 riders a day.
Pasco County would be responsible for building a parking lot, restrooms, utility hookups and a beach area. Panakos also wants the county to pay for one of the two cable systems, which cost about $350,000.
Pasco County has $11 million in tourist development money that it has been collecting for more than a decade. But the SunWest project would compete with a proposed sports complex in Wesley Chapel for those dollars.
The county also has $2.5 million available to develop the SunWest park without tapping into its tourist development dollars. A portion of the money is planned for boat trailer parking and a ramp to an adjacent channel, which would provide access to the Gulf of Mexico.
The Wake Park Project completed two new wake parks in Texas and in Winnipeg, Canada, this year.
Victor Toledo is owner of the new wake park just outside of Dallas. He said Panakos' team designed and built his two-lake water park in less than a year. That included digging the lakes, he said. Installation of the cable systems and pro-shop were completed in two months.
"We started physical construction in March or April, and we were finished by Labor Day," Toledo said.
During its opening weekend, Hydrous hosted a triple-crown event for the World Wakeboard Association. It was broadcast on CBS. The park had 1,500-paying customers in its first three weeks.
"We get out-of-towners every weekend," Toledo said. "We've had people come down from Michigan, Tennessee and as far away as Europe. We had about 100 riders last weekend, but it will be triple that in the summer."
Hydrous charges $25 per hour or $45 a day for unlimited rides. A season pass is $1,000.
Commissioner Ted Schrader, one of the project's skeptics, still wasn't sold on the concept. He said he wasn't wowed by the Wake Park's bid package. "It just looked like a promotional package for wakeboarding," he said. "I didn't see enough specifics about how they would generate the occupancy rates we're looking for."
Wiregrass Ranch developer J.D. Porter has pitched a $25 million multifield sports complex that would host regional and national sports tournaments.
The commissioners scheduled a workshop for Nov. 30 to meet with bidders for both parks. They will meet with the Wake Park Project that morning and with Wiregrass Sports that afternoon.