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In path of growth, Pasco starts to flex more economic muscle

In a Tampa Bay economy dominated by densely populated, business-rich and wealthier Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, a newly emboldened player is starting to gain notice.

Pasco County is touting big development plans along its southern border. It's pitching the possibility of an advanced regional transportation solution — a raised, toll highway much like Tampa's Lee Roy Selmon Expressway — along a major east-west highway. It's talking about business development that could reverse traditional commuting patterns and send Hillsborough and Pinellas workers heading north for good-paying jobs.

Most of all, it's pushing to shed its bedroom community image, seeking at least near-equal status — sooner, not later — with its big-brother counties to its south.

Pasco? Where the county's own growth management administrator says you can walk out the door at a Dillard's department store and pet a cow grazing in the field next door?

Yep. A convergence of economic interests and longer-term planning is under way in Pasco. Long-standing, land-rich ranch families, whose sweeping open acreage still dominates the county, are diving rapidly into the development business with some smart coordination by county government and the business community.

County administrators, bolstered by planning guidance from the Urban Land Institute, are pressing to get ahead of the inevitable growth sweeping north from more congested Hills­borough and Pinellas.

And Pasco economic development leaders, reveling in the knowledge that the next wave of major Tampa Bay expansion will go where open land is abundant and affordable, feel newly empowered.

"Pasco is in a state of becoming. You have to have some faith it will happen," says John Hagen, CEO of the Pasco Economic Development Council. "If you study growth in Tampa Bay, Pasco is in the path of progress."

Let's pause, briefly, for some obligatory harrumphs and snarky humor. Even with half a million residents, Pasco lacks any town of significant size. Most of its 500,000 acres will remain untouched for many years to come.

Yet there's more than meets the eye just north of the Hillsborough and Pinellas county lines.

That quickly became clear during an economic development bus tour last week along Pasco's busy State Roads 54 and 56. That's the major east-to-west commuting artery that connects such critical north-south routes as Interstate 75 to the east, the Suncoast Parkway in the middle and U.S. 19 closer to the gulf.

The bus tour drew a couple dozen economic developers, bankers and transportation specialists. It was hosted by Richard Gehring, Pasco's planning and development administrator, and a veteran visionary of this metro region's growth.

Gehring's pitch? Now is the time for Pasco to pursue a raised toll road that would run above the median of State Roads 54 and 56. The east-west road could serve as the foundation for a limited-access toll road, similar to the Selmon Expressway. As envisioned, it would allow faster travel by individual vehicles willing to pay, but also carry "bus rapid transit" that could attract business workers assured of "predictable commutes" without the hassles of driving.

Says Gehring: "This route could become the northern loop for Tampa Bay just like the perimeter road in Atlanta."

The county official wants to act quickly, taking advantage of low interest rates and, consistent with Pasco's desire to stay ahead of growth, start a project likely to take eight or more years before southeast Pasco's already congested roads get overwhelmed.

Gehring was joined in a post-tour discussion by Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad and Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA) executive director Bob Clifford.

Their message? A raised expressway has great possibilities. Making it a toll road will help pay for some of it in a time of lean state budgets.

The price per mile of a raised, four-lane expressway would probably top $28 million for a total cost close to $600 million, depending on its length, estimates Gehring, who has held preliminary talks with investment firms on financing.

Prasad reminded his audience that state Rep. Will Weatherford, a former Wesley Chapel real estate broker, becomes speaker of the House in Tallahassee this month. Weatherford, says Prasad, "wants to go on the offensive in transportation."

Advised Prasad: "Think big."

Pasco — at least along the 54/56 corridor — already is doing just that.

Major financial companies like St. Petersburg's Raymond James Financial and Baltimore-based T. Rowe Price both secured Pasco property years ago to expand as extensions of their Pinellas and Hillsborough operations. Raymond James' property consists of about 65 acres of vacant land.

Despite timing setbacks from the deep recession, both firms say they will build sizable campuses and employ thousands along SR 54 and SR 56. So far, their expansion schedules are vague.

"Moving to Pasco County is still in our long-term plans," says spokesman Brian Lewbart, vice president at T. Rowe Price headquarters in Baltimore. "There's no set timetable." The firm controls about 70 acres in Pasco and has anticipated up to 1,600 jobs.

The Shops at Wiregrass mall just east of Interstate 75 at Bruce B. Downs Boulevard is not only bustling, but a majority of its shoppers drive north from homes in Hillsborough. Immediately next door is the brand new Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel, part of the Adventist Health System, that was designed in advance for rapid expansion. It opened last month.

Minutes to the east on SR 56, new seven-story buildings for a Pasco-Hernando Community College are rising at the Porter Campus at Wiregrass Ranch. There's buzz about PHCC becoming a four-year college.

Other projects, including residential communities, are also in the works.

Is Pasco just dreaming to think such a rural county can run with the Big Dogs of Hillsborough and Pinellas?

Or are the economic development stars aligning, at least in southern Pasco, as the regional economy starts to show more life?

"I think everyone in the county likes the attention Pasco is getting, and we want more of it," acknowledged Pasco EDC chief Hagen. "We want to do cool things."

I'd say Pasco's off to a pretty good start. Hillsborough and Pinellas: Take note. A tri-county economy is starting to emerge.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@tampabay.com.

In path of growth, Pasco starts to flex more economic muscle 11/03/12 [Last modified: Friday, November 2, 2012 7:50pm]
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