The transformation of an old landfill in Largo into an expansive sports complex featuring Pinellas County’s largest pickleball facility and its first public lagoon has cleared its first hurdle.
During a July 19 meeting, the Largo City Commission voted 4-2 to leave approval of the city selling 87 acres to Clearwater-based Porter Development in the hands of residents. Ninety percent of the property, located near East Bay Drive and Highland Avenue, was previously used as a landfill. Les Porter, the project’s developer, wants to buy and convert the land into a 170,000-square-foot recreational facility dubbed the Mid-Pinellas Recreational Complex.
The discussion included 24 residents, mostly from two neighboring communities, who vehemently spoke against the sprawling development – predominantly due to the traffic, congestion and detrimental environmental impacts it could bring to the area. Seven residents spoke in favor of the project.
At the onset of the passionate debate, City Manager Henry Schubert noted that voters approving the property’s sale during a Nov. 8 ballot referendum would not guarantee the city and developer would reach an agreement, and it would still need environmental reviews.
“If approved, ultimately, this is the first step in a very, very long, detailed process,” said Schubert. “To consider whether this development or sale would actually occur.”
Porter Development has big plans for the site.
According to its website, the complex’s mix of indoor and outdoor venues would be unique to Pinellas County and provide an estimated $75 million in economic impact to Largo in its first five years. Pickleball’s popularity continues to soar in the area, and the facility would feature 16 outdoor and 24 “open-air covered” courts for what Sports Illustrated called “the fastest-growing sport in America.”
Dr. Ed Carlson, National USA Pickleball Association ambassador to Pinellas County, called the project “a grand opportunity” to financially sustain the City of Largo into the future, as it could lure national and international tournaments. He said the sport recently transformed the small town of Holley Hill on Florida’s east coast.
“Pickleball has become an economic driver across the whole country,” added Carlson. “You have the chance to become the pickleball capital of West Florida.”
Another potential highlight is a 10-acre public lagoon for swimming, kayaking and paddleboarding.
The proposed project would also feature an indoor recreation center with eight basketball courts, 16 volleyball courts and space for other youth sports and trade shows. An entertainment facility would include an arcade, redemption store, virtual reality devices, an esports area and a climbing course. The complex would also offer event space for receptions, birthday parties, corporate outings and after-school programming.
“We’re looking to partner with municipalities and activate large blocks of what we would consider dormant property,” said Porter during a March city commission workshop. “And we want to do that through indoor and outdoor recreation, and entertainment uses.
“We think the mix of those types of concepts adds to the wellness and quality of life in the surrounding community.”
Dozens utilized the public forum included with the second reading of the proposal to ardently disagree with Porter.
The Mid-Pinellas Recreational complex would sit adjacent to the Lincolnshire Estates mobile home park and New Haven Condominium association – and many of those residents spoke about how the facility would interrupt their quality of life.
In addition to traffic and congestion concerns in an area that many feel is unsuitable for such a significant development and influx of people, there were also concerns with digging up a previously unregulated landfill. Others spoke about increased heat from the added concrete and pavement and noise from a lagoon full of excited children.
There is also the site’s history, and some residents feel the land should remain untouched. The Southwest Florida Water Management District gave ownership of most of the property to the city in 1997 to treat stormwater runoff and provide a general public recreational area.
A local change.org petition that demands the city halt the project’s progress has raised 597 signatures.
Brain Aungst, a land-use attorney speaking on behalf of Porter Development, said a large portion of the property would remain greenspace for recreational uses. He also noted a recent two-and-a-half-hour public forum the developer participated in with the New Haven association.
“And all of the same issues you’ve heard tonight – traffic, noise, environmental concerns, safety – those were the main issues,” said Aungst. “And I believe, respectfully, that we addressed a lot of those issues at the last commission hearing.
“But the bottom line is, you retain control over those issues.”
Aungst added that the 37,000 Largo voters who cast their ballot in the 2020 election have the authority to deny the city the right to sell the property in November.
The developer realizes that influence and residents’ concerns, said Aungst, which is why the group has held several discussions with community stakeholders. He also noted support from the Central Pinellas Chamber of Commerce and took issue with residents referring to the site as a park.
“This is an unmonitored, environmentally compromised piece of property that the developer is taking upon themselves to basically repair,” said Aungst. “So again, from our perspective, this is an objective benefit to the community.”
City Commissioner Jamie Robinson said he appreciated the comments and concerns from the audience but felt they were “way ahead” of the current topic.
He reminded them that the discussion was simply whether the city should allow a ballot referendum regarding the potential sale of the property. Robinson explained that if voters provide the city authority to negotiate with the developers, and if a sale occurs, there are still several steps to take “before there’s a shovel ever turned to develop that property.”
“A lot of those statements will be better served if this ever gets to any of those points,” said Robinson. “We’re way, far away from that right now.
“If we move forward with this, I’m more than happy to have those discussions with everybody.”
The commission voted 4-2 to allow a Nov. 8 ballot referendum, and further progress on the project is now in the hands of Largo voters.