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Pasco's EDC has grown over its 25 years, but looks ahead

Pasco County used to be its own worst enemy when it came to economic development.

Three competing groups, two of them private, bickered. When word got out that a business was looking at a piece of land, the other groups rushed to show off a competing site.

Progressive business and government leaders knew that if Pasco were ever to compete for industry, it would have to achieve a unified voice. In 1986, they crafted the Pasco Economic Development Council, which celebrates its 25th birthday this week with a banquet at Saddlebrook Resort that has drawn Gov. Rick Scott as a VIP guest.

Scott likely will hear about all the recent successes: T. Rowe Price's announcement in 2009 that it would bring its campus to central Pasco; Dais Analytic's announcement of a $200 million trade deal with China that will eventually create 1,000 jobs; Raymond James' signing of intent to buy land for an expansion at Wiregrass Ranch.

But getting here wasn't easy.

Kurt Conover, who was a manager for Florida Power Corp. in 1986, remembers the early days.

"You had to make sure everybody felt a part of it," said Conover, now public relations director for Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point. "So we had extremely large boards at the beginning."

Roy Bain, who was publisher of the Pasco Times and active in the formation of the EDC, wrote a column about it when he retired in 1998.

"It was hard to sell someone on relocating a plant to Pasco County,'' he wrote. "We had the option of taking a prospect to an old citrus grove or to a piece of pasture land and saying, 'Hey, can't you imagine your plant sitting here in the Florida sunshine?' I'm not kidding. That's what we did then. Prospects were often polite, but we usually never saw them again."

Infrastructure improvements and the building of several industrial parks helped remedy that.

"It was mostly small businesses that came in and built a butler (small) building," said County Administrator John Gallagher. "But it was something to market.''

However, most large landowners sold off to residential developers. Homes sprang up where citrus groves once were. People who moved into them had to look south for jobs that paid better than minimum wage.

"A lot of people don't have choices," said Gallagher, whose epiphany came one morning in 2002 when he drove on State Road 56 and saw the columns of cars headed toward Tampa on Interstate 75. "That's when I thought, 'Hey, we haven't done such a good job with growth management.' "

Mary Jane Stanley, who became the EDC's chief executive in 1999, said new road networks such as the Suncoast Parkway and SR 56 opened up new possibilities for recruiting.

But Pasco, in the shadow of Hillsborough and Pinellas, was still a tough sell.

"People didn't know a lot about Pasco," said Stanley, who served as chief of the agency for a decade. "They didn't know to look there."

Stanley and her staff focused on marketing blitzes.

"I think we gave 20 speeches a year," she recalled. During her tenure, the agency moved from cramped quarters in the county's outdated-looking Land O'Lakes office building to an upscale building in the key area of SR 54 and the Suncoast Parkway. The council also began a plan to restructure its board from one that elected members to a group in which businesses that invested the most money got spots.

"A lot of higher-level people didn't want to go through an election," said EDC vice president John Walsh. It also helped the agency, which relied partly on a mix of private donations and county taxes, to boost its budget.

The new location showed prospects that the agency wasn't an arm of county government. It also showed visitors that the county was closer than they thought.

The efforts paid off. In 2006, the county landed Opinicus, one of an estimated 3,500 companies in the state that create computer graphics, amusement park rides, medical training dummies and top-of-the-line aircraft simulators. The company moved into a $5 million facility near the EDC's headquarters.

An attempt to lure an expanded H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center from Hillsborough headquarters failed, with officials speculating that the inquiry was an attempt to squeeze more perks out of Hillsborough.

Pasco responded by seeking $7.5 million from the state for incentives, but the measure fell to then-Gov. Charlie Crist's veto pen. The county ended up setting aside $2.5 million for economic development.

The big fish bit in 2009, when financial giant T. Rowe Price paid $13.5 million for 94 acres along SR 54, east of the parkway, to build a campus that promised to add 1,600 jobs. The firm cut the deal after securing $30 million in incentives from the state and county.

No big announcements of new industries followed right after that, and Stanley resigned from the EDC under pressure shortly after the T. Rowe Price deal was struck. However, Dais Analytic, a small Odessa nanotechnology firm that had moved to Pasco from New York about a decade earlier, then broke the news of a $200 million deal to export its air-filtration system to China, a move that would create 1,000 jobs.

At the same time, the housing market crashed, rattling Pasco's construction-based economy and sending unemployment rates soaring into double digits. Job-seekers sent so many resumes to Dais, the company's fax machine was overwhelmed.

Though T. Rowe and Dais were hailed as success stories, the real game-changer in Pasco was less glitzy, those in economic development circles say.

At the behest of EDC board chairman Stew Gibbons, with backing from County Commissioner Michael Cox, county officials agreed to split the $115,000 cost of a study by the Urban Land Institute, a national group of development experts. The report that came back wasn't rosy. It criticized the county for its patchwork of land development rules and suggested streamlining the process, something those in business had complained about for years.

"Everyone seemed to get behind the effort because of the importance of helping bring new jobs to Pasco," said Gibbons, the longtime executive with the Connerton planned community in central Pasco and whose job recently fell victim to the sour economy.

Gibbons said the report could have easily been shelved, but county officials were eager to transform Pasco from a bedroom community to an employment center.

"I am hopeful that we will see continued and expanded efforts to help educate and train qualified workers so that we can continue to attract new companies to Pasco County," he said. The result was an overhaul of the codes, the adoption of lower transportation fees for industry and the mapping of the county into market areas to concentrate development in key areas that will encourage future mass transit.

The task of working with the county on the land-rule changes now falls to EDC chief John Hagen, who was hired at the end of 2009.

A longtime economic development official in several cities, Hagen said he sees a bright future.

He also is focusing on helping small start-up companies and shoring up the school district's career academies to develop a work force that will continue to attract new industry. And he is working to get Pasco residents involved on the boards of regional organizations so that those outside will become familiar with its assets.

"Pasco is starting to emerge onto the regional stage," he said.

"There was nothing. I remember having to drive to JCPenney in Clearwater to buy my son a Cub Scout uniform."

County Commission Chairman Ann Hildebrand, on the Pasco business landscape 25 years ago.

"The thinking then was that the county was in the slow lane. But then the tires came off the car."

Former County Commissioner and EDC liaison Michael Cox, recalling the conditions that prompted county officials in 2008 to agree to a study of its land rules by the Urban Land Institute. The study sparked changes that officials hope will attract more economic development.

"The model of going to a big company and having lifetime employment is pretty much dead. What that means is we have to produce a work force that is constantly retraining. If you embrace change, you're going to love the future."

EDC president John Hagen, on the need to strengthen the Pasco school district's career academies to develop workers that will attract business.

"Looking back in 25 years, it seems like all this should have happened right away. But in reality, it takes time."

Kurt Conover, EDC pioneer.

Pasco's EDC has grown over its 25 years, but looks ahead 09/03/11 [Last modified: Saturday, September 3, 2011 1:41pm]
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