FLORENCE — ESPN Wide World of Sports in Florida’s Walt Disney resort is similar to what Grinder Sports Group LLC wants to build in Florence, the Florence Planning and Zoning Commission was told.

Commissioner Duane Proulx asked if a concept like Grinder’s is operating anywhere else, “or is this a new experiment for the town of Florence?”

Lyndon Estill, chief operations officer of Grinder, replied the closest similar development would be Wide World of Sports in Orlando, but even that one is just about 75% the size of what Grinder has planned.

“So there is a little bit of uncharted waters that we’re going into,” Estill told the commission. “But as you may know, the Disney Wide World of Sports has been probably the premier facility in the country for the last 30 years.”

The ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex is a 220-acre multi-purpose sports complex in the Walt Disney World Resort in Bay Lake, Florida, near Orlando. The complex includes nine venues and hosts numerous professional and amateur sporting events throughout the year. During the pandemic, it has hosted “bubbles” for leagues trying to play games, such as the NBA and MLS.

Grinder sports is proposing a development of approximately 357 acres on two parcels off North Felix Road, separated by the Magma Ranch community.

Proulx also asked if there’s enough financing to finish Grinder’s proposal. Estill replied with development agreement negotiations ongoing with the town, it’s probably best not to talk specifics at this time. “But as we get further into that agreement and what works for all parties involved,” more details can be made public, Estill said.

Planning and Zoning Chairman Gary Pranzo said Florence has a systemic problem in which development occurs north of the Gila River while the area south does not benefit and continues to deteriorate. He said it’s his feeling that the Grinder complex will exacerbate this problem.

“From a planning standpoint, I would like all of you to start thinking about how we bring south of the Gila along with the prosperity that this project is going to bring to the town of Florence and to the county,” he said. “It’s a lot to think about, it’s not an easy problem. Our management has wrestled with it and not done well.”

He suggested this could be a topic at the commission’s next meeting Sept. 3.

These questions and comments came Aug. 20 when the commission held a public hearing to receive comments on a Major General Plan Amendment for Grinder Sports Group LLC. The commission will hold a second public hearing Sept. 3 and recommend for or against the amendment. The Town Council could take action on Oct. 5.

This is just the beginning of approvals the development needs, as Grinder negotiates a development agreement with the town and pursues annexation and rezoning. The group envisions a major sports training complex with numerous fields and courts, lodging and retail. The proposal also includes a satellite college campus, a charter school campus and family entertainment center with miniature golf, bowling, paintball, movie theater, hotels, restaurants, and retail and office space.

Public hearing

A few citizens also had questions at the Aug. 20 public hearing. Valerie Blaser asked when the Grinder complex might break ground. Florence planner Larry Harmer replied that that the middle of next year is possible. Cory Shepard, Grinder project manager, agreed that “is a very feasible point for us to start moving dirt.”

Blaser also asked about water treatment for the complex. Elijah Williams, an engineering consultant for Grinder, said quantifying the demand for services and identifying potential utility providers is something they’re “still in the middle of doing,” but they know it’s one of the first priorities they’ll have to address.

Blaser asked if this means there are others being considered besides Johnson Utilities.

Harmer read an email from another resident asking, “Is Johnson Utilities going to have any part in this project? Their ability to handle a project like this is at best doubtful.” Harmer replied that Grinder is proposing to provide water and wastewater facilities as part of the project and “they’ll have to work with Johnson Utilities to reach an agreement” on those facilities.

“This is all part of the negotiation process between the town and discussions with Johnson Utilities to find out to what degree this project will be required to provide the infrastructure, and what form that will take. That is still all to be determined at this point,” Harmer said.

Williams added, “We certainly understand there are some challenges, or have been historically. We’re looking at every option and every possibility as far as water and sewer service in this area, and are confident we’ll get some good answers.”

Bonnie Bariola of Chandler emailed a question asking which Grinder or Grinders entity will build the sports complex. Estill replied Grinder Sports Group LLC and incorporated companies are “the project entities moving forward.” Grinders Sports Inc. is a separate group, a nonprofit that Co-CEO Kelly Stinnett established many years ago for youth sports.

Pranzo said the question is will the sports complex be nonprofit, “and it will not. It will be a regular corporation, or an LLC.”

“Yes sir,” Estill replied.

Chris Funk noted the Grinder proposal also includes police and fire facilities. He said Magma Ranch residents currently must buy fire protection subscriptions from Rural Metro Fire Department. “Will that go away? Will our city taxes actually go for city services now?”

Harmer and Vice Mayor John Anderson replied Magma Ranch residents could ask to be annexed into the town limits and receive fire protection and other town services. Harmer said the annexation process is outlined on the town website.

Grinder proposes to build 15 college-level baseball fields; a pro-level baseball stadium with 7,500 seats; 15 college-level softball fields and Little League fields; a pro-level softball/Little League stadium with 3,000 seats, 24 multipurpose fields for soccer, lacrosse, field hockey and football; a track and field venue; aquatics center; 10 tennis courts with stadium; pickleball courts; a field house with 10 basketball courts, 20 volleyball courts, cheerleading and wrestling.

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Mark Cowling is the county reporter for PinalCentral and covers the town of Florence, San Tan Valley and the surrounding area. He can be reached at mcowling@pinalcentral.com.

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