In its ongoing effort to transform itself from a construction-dependent bedroom community into a self-contained hometown with high-wage jobs, Pasco County is turning to a southern neighbor for guidance.
Sarasota County's Economic Development Corp. approved a five-year business plan in April to help it recover from the downturn caused by the housing bust. The plan has drawn the attention of Pasco officials who are eager to do the same.
"It's driven by a couple of things, probably the most predominant are the top two strategic challenges: jobs and economic development, and financial sustainability," said Richard Gehring, Pasco County's growth management administrator. "It's got characteristics we were thinking about. They've gone through the process. If you're charting a new course, you want to talk to somebody who's traveled that course."
Gehring did some research into other counties' efforts and liked what he saw with Sarasota, which just launched its plan in April after a large-scale effort to formulate it.
Primarily, he liked that it evaluated progress in measurable results. Previous plans dealt in broad, sweeping statements.
Pasco's new overall strategic plan has hard numbers. It calls for increasing the prime acreage of industrial-zoned sites with infrastructure from 400 to 800 acres and adding 20,000 jobs by 2015.
"We want to be clear about what we're doing and why we're doing it," Gehring said.
Sarasota's plan calls for the addition of 15,000 jobs over the next five years to return to employment levels of 2005 and 2006 and grow at a steady rate of 2 to 3 percent a year.
"We have very specific methods we use, and we report them on a regular basis," said Kathy Baylis, president and CEO of the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County. "It has a lot of specific measurements regarding whether or not we're making progress toward our goal. If we're not making progress, we take a look and figure out why."
Baylis said the plan used Sarasota's unique advantages to help develop economic platforms on which to base growth. For example, Sarasota is home to the highly acclaimed Ringling College of Arts and Design. It also has a sizable senior population and an aquaculture industry. So three of the platforms ended up being design, aging and sustainable systems.
"What is it that makes our community unique?" Baylis said. "Let's leverage that. That's what the new updated plan is all about."
Another feature of the plan was its grass roots development. Groups from all over the county, including all the chambers of commerce, technical schools, work force board, Realtors board and the arts council were involved in writing it.
"It was much more than lip service," said Russ Crumley, executive director of the Sarasota Arts Council. "A lot of people think of arts as icing on the cake."
But the arts and its related industries are becoming a big deal to younger generations who have grown up on video games and the Internet, he said.
Pasco County is likely a lot different from Sarasota, he added, but the key lies in finding your strengths.
"Be proud of what you are," he said.
Observers say that what Pasco has been in the past — endless residential subdivisions and strip malls with the shots called by land owners and their attorneys — can't continue if the area is to thrive.
"The county's got to get out of the business of rezoning and let the market handle it," said County Commissioner Michael Cox, who grew up in west Pasco.
Trilby resident Richard Riley said he's optimistic about the direction Gehring and the county appear to be taking.
"Too many times in the recent past, it appeared that leaders were allowing development because they were afraid of lawsuits for apparently arbitrary decisions," he said. "With good planning strategies included in comprehensive plans, they will be able to defend their ability to control growth in both the rural areas and the existing overdeveloped areas."
Lisa Buie can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4604.