WESLEY CHAPEL - Blue Marble Strategic founder James Talton had his first meeting with Pasco County Administrator Michele Baker to begin serious negotiations for a proposed $34 million baseball complex contract at Wiregrass Ranch.
"We had a good conversation with Jim, but nothing hardened came out of that," Baker said. "It's still very much a work in progress."
Blue Marble's plan calls for 20 baseball fields, concessions and a stadium with seating for 5,000 people. The concept also includes an athletes' village with a cafeteria and dormitory-style housing on site for up to 100 teams.
Talton had hoped to have a contract in hand and be under construction this year, but the project has been at a standstill for months while the county negotiated the terms of a land donation from the Porter family, developers of Wiregrass, for the 138-acre parcel. It was delayed again while county commissioners searched for a new county administrator following John Gallagher's retirement.
But last week Assistant County Attorney Jane Fagan sent Talton the first draft of a lease and operating agreement for the project. She told the Tribune the document was based largely on the proposed contract with the Porters - one they rejected in 2012 when they walked away from a deal with the county to develop a sports park on the site.
Talton said he was "baffled" when he read the contract because it contained many of the same provisions the Porters rejected, such as a demand to pay the county up to 8 percent of the facility's gross revenues.
He said he expected the percentage to be lower since Blue Marble would invest $22 million - two-thirds of the development costs. Pasco County would contribute $11 million.
Talton also wants a longer lease than the initial 20-year term offered by the county. He initially asked for a 50-year lease. He's also concerned about a "termination for convenience" clause that would allow the county to cancel the contract and buy out Blue Marble at the end of the first 20-year term simply by paying the lowest appraised price for the park amenities. He described those terms as possible "deal killers."
"The way it was written would make it impossible for me to get financing," he said.
But after meeting with Baker and Fagan, Talton said he felt much more optimistic that they would be able to find a meeting of the minds.
The first draft contains a special incentive clause that Fagan inserted at Blue Marble's request. It says the county would reduce the revenue sharing component if the complex meets or exceeds certain goals for overnight hotel stays.
"They gave us their terms," Baker said. "This is our first attempt to merge those two documents."
Fagan said the contract would go through many incarnations before they reach a final version. She and Talton already have a follow-up meeting scheduled for next week to resume negotiations.
Baker said getting a deal done quickly is not her priority. "I'm more driven by making sure it's a good business deal, and that we end up with a good facility that meets our goals," she said. "Certainly, we'd like it sooner rather than later. We'll take as long as it takes to get it right."