MADEIRA BEACH - City leaders expect a big return on their planned multimillion-dollar investment to replace three aging softball diamonds and a recreation center.
Mayor Travis Palladeno says he is heartened by tourism officials' reports of $23 million flowing into Pinellas County last year from amateur, college and professional sports teams coming for the beach and warm winter temperatures.
With neighboring counties and other sunny destinations vying for these tourists by building massive sports complexes, Palladeno and others figure $2.5 million isn't too much to add to the city's cost of replacing an outdated city hall and fire station.
Not everyone in this beach community agrees.
A group of residents thinks the money would be spent better by fixing drainage and improving roads. They hope to stop the city's plans with a voter referendum.
"The economic impact all the way around for the city and the residents would be outstanding," said Palladeno, who sits on the county's Tourist Development Council.
"They can't find enough fields for people that actually want to come here. They're actually having to turn down events."
The city is seeking a $9 million bond to cover the cost of the city hall, fire station, recreation center and ball fields, which are adjacent to city hall on a small peninsula jutting into Boca Ciega Bay just north of the Tom Stuart Causeway.
City commissioners want to bring their public sports facilities up to professional standards.
Visit St. Pete/Clearwater sports commissioner Kevin Smith told city leaders at a recent meeting that his office is flooded with teams looking to train or hold tournaments in Pinellas.
The national diving team just signed on to compete in Largo in 2014. The Association of Volleyball Professionals is holding beach volleyball matches in St. Petersburg this September.
Teams that come to train sometimes stay for months, booking hotel rooms and eating at restaurants, Smith said.
"People are coming to destinations like ours to have sports events, to host sports events, to be a part of sports events," he said.
Madeira Beach could be an ideal spot for softball or even lacrosse, but Smith said that won't happen unless the city's facilities are brought up to acceptable standards.
City Manager Shane Crawford told commissioners it would take a while to recoup the investment and the city would have to keep up with maintenance. But the potential of bringing more people to the beach year round makes the project a money-maker, he said.
Leaders in neighboring Pasco County see logic in making big investments in sports tourism.
A $34 million baseball complex is in the works at Wiregrass Ranch in Wesley Chapel with 20 fields and a 5,000-seat stadium.
Former Madeira Beach city manager Jim Madden is not moved by the prospect of such tourist dollars.
"It's for the business; it's not for the residents. And who's paying for it? The residents, not the businesses," Madden said.
Madden is among residents who this month began gathering signatures on petitions aimed at stopping the city from borrowing money for the sports facilities.
He said the city should have sufficient funds to pay for a new city hall and fire station without borrowing extra money. The city has a more immediate need to revamp storm-water drainage and upgrade old streets, which will cost several million dollars, Madden said.
Palladeno said the city has a rare opportunity to invest in a project that could bring in future revenue - not only in local spending, but in fees for using public facilities.
"Normally, city halls don't make money," he said. "This is something where you invest in your city and it will be an economic fund."