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SunWest Park hits funding crunch

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NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco County has a wake park operator under contract for its future SunWest Park, but getting the park built is proving to be an even bigger challenge.

The entrance to SunWest Harbourtowne, where work continued on Tuesday. ANDY JONES/STAFF
County commissioners unanimously approved the 45-year contract with Patrick Panakos, but that term doesn’t start until the county builds the first phase of the park.

“The big thing is, what are they going to be able to do?” Panakos said. “The $3.4 million (budget) isn’t enough to do what they want.”

The county has put the project out to bid twice, and each time it has come back well over budget. Purchasing Director Scott Stromer was able to negotiate almost $100,000 off the lowest bid, but that only brings it down to $3.85 million.

“This is the second time we’ve done it. We have effective competition — this is the market price,” Stromer said.

County Administrator Michele Baker told commissioners they have few options. “You either have to find more money, or you have to reject all bids.”

One option might be to use tourist development funds to pay for the balance. That only became a possibility because the county now has letters of intent from the Extreme Volleyball Professionals (EVP) Tour to hold a series of tournaments at the park.

Craig Lenniger, EVP’s national tour director, promised to hold two 2015 Pro-Am tour events at SunWest and to move the EVP permanent offices to the location. In addition, league commissioner Ross Balling wrote a letter of intent to open a beach volleyball academy at the park and to host an amateur tournament that could draw thousands of players and their families.

“I’m looking forward to getting in on the ground floor of SunWest and moving forward,” Lenniger said.

Baker said the county would have to get approval from its Tourist Development Council before tapping that funding.

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Panakos, a Clearwater native and former professional wakeboarder, hopes his patience will be rewarded. He has been negotiating the contract with the county since 2012 to build an extreme watersports park on the former limerock mine. The contract grants Panakos a 45-year lease of the park property, with options to renew for up to 30 more years.

He is required to install a full-size cable system and two training cable systems for wakeboarding and water skiing in the first phase. Panakos, who designs ramps, rails and stairs for the Red Bull Wake Open, said SunWest will have obstacles for beginners and pros.

“It will come with a full set of features,” Panakos said.

Panakos would also be responsible for providing equipment, furniture, lockers, floating docks and an inflatable play area.

“He’s ready to roll, as soon as we’re completed with phase one construction,” said Jane Fagan, assistant county attorney.

His company would provide maintenance and security for the park and would have the sole right to sell concessions, rent equipment and to charge for parking, but he would have to pay the county 3 percent of his gross revenues beginning in the second year of the contract.

The county is responsible for building the beaches and park shelters, restrooms, parking lots, barbecue areas, and sand volleyball courts. The county also is obligated to build a new entrance from U.S. 19 and to install lighting, landscaping and sidewalks.

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The county’s purchasing director is negotiating with local construction companies to bring down the cost of building the first phase of the park. Fagan said the lease term with Panakos officially starts once the county’s work is done.

Later phases call for a boardwalk area, splash pad play area, zip line and permanent retail and restaurant buildings.

Commissioner Pat Mulieri commended Chairman Jack Mariano for his dogged support of the project. “When this first started, I had doubts — I really did,” she said. “But you’re a bulldog.”

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SunWest Park hits funding crunch
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