Pasco's unemployment rate remained stubbornly high in 2011, with a housing slump that has more than worn out its welcome. The construction industry continued to shed workers and the school district — Pasco's largest employer — eliminated more than 500 jobs.
But in a year where the mantra across the country became jobs, jobs, jobs, Pasco County also saw its prospects brighten. Raymond James Financial solidified its plans for a Wesley Chapel campus that would bring 750 jobs by 2024. And every Pasco hospital had expansions in the works that would add to the employment rolls.
"Even though the economy was still in the doldrums, we actually had a really good year," said John Hagen, president and chief executive officer of the Pasco County Economic Development Council. The public-private partnership works to lure development from outside the county and nurture existing business.
"We've added almost 1,300 jobs, which is really great, more than twice what we've done on the average," Hagen said, referring to the number projected by companies the agency worked with in 2011. "We're going to have a better 2012 than 2011. At least that's my gut feeling." Those industries ranged from an olive oil processing company in Odessa to a cell tower company in Land O'Lakes to the new hospitals and financial firms.
The hospital boom in particular touched every corner of the county.
Community Hospital in New Port Richey is preparing to change its name to the Medical Center of Trinity once it moves to new digs along State Road 54, likely next month. Meanwhile, the concave facade of Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel is rising on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, with a sign that promises a fall 2012 opening and a Facebook page full of comments.
"Exciting growth in the Wesley Chapel community. Just emailed my resume and cover letter. I would love to be a part of this organization," posted Amanda Mullen.
From Samantha Penrod: "I am very interested in joining the Florida Hospital team as one of your new Echocardiographers! I just sent in my resume and am looking forward to hearing from you all! Happy Holidays and Happy building!"
Not to be outdone, Morton Plant North Bay Hospital is remodeling and enlarging its operating rooms. Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point just got the green light to operate a trauma center in its emergency department. And Pasco Regional Medical Center has expanded and remodeled its emergency department, with a grand opening expected next month.
Meanwhile, Florida Hospital Zephyrhills is preparing to open its new Simpson Breast Health Center in mid 2012. The new center, supported by a $250,000 gift from businessman Wilton Simpson and his wife, Kathy, will allow patients to receive screening, diagnostics, treatment and education in one place.
Those who track hiring say the upgrades in health care will continue to help Pasco's job outlook.
"Forty years ago if you had a heart attack, there wasn't much that could be done for you," said David Hamilton, operations manager for the Pasco Hernando Workforce Board. "Now they can put you in a cath lab and put in a stent," he said. "That amount of technology adds to staff."
Of course the headline grabber this year was Raymond James, which announced its plans in September to expand its St. Petersburg operations to the Wiregrass Ranch in Wesley Chapel. The firm said it plans to build two office towers, each 100,000 square feet, at State Road 56 and Mansfield Boulevard.
The jobs would pay at least an average of $38,901, which is 25 percent higher than Pasco's average annual wage. The state and county kicked in $10 million in incentives.
Hagen said he expects the company to close on the property by next year and begin construction.
The expansion follows T. Rowe Price's 2009 purchase of 94 acres along State Road 54 in the Sunlake area to move its Tampa operations and ultimately bring 1,600 jobs. However, the land sits empty while the financial giant continues to wait out the weak economy. To collect on $30 million in state and local incentives, the first building must be completed by 2015.
Corporate spokesman Brian Lewbart said that the Baltimore-based financial firm still has no timetable to begin construction.
"Moving to Pasco County is still in our long-term plans," he said.
With construction stalled there — and everywhere else — Hamilton foresees no real increase in construction job opportunities next year. However, he predicts that in addition to medical workers, jobs will be available for skilled industrial employees as well as salespeople and entrepreneurs.
"The guys who fix and repair the robots, or who can build and design," is how he describes the new industrial positions.
As for sales, he said he sees a lot of pent-up demand for products such as cars, and "a top notch sales person can be very valuable."
"If you're good at it, you're golden," he said.