LAND O'LAKES — An environmental group "so small it can meet in a phone booth" has "probably derailed" plans by investment firm T. Rowe Price to bring 1,600 jobs to Pasco County, state Sen. Mike Fasano said Thursday.
Fasano said he feared that Citizens for Sanity's recent challenge to the water district permit for the proposed T. Rowe Price complex would create delays that could kill the highly sought-after project. The challenge, filed under the name Citizens for Sanity.com, cites concerns over wetlands and water use.
"I hope that the issue can be resolved quickly and the project can move forward. I am not encouraged that this will happen, however," he wrote in a letter to the St. Petersburg Times. "If it does not, then I hope that Citizens for Sanity is satisfied that it brought to an end this great opportunity for Pasco County to be competitive with the larger counties in the Tampa Bay area."
County and state officials, including Fasano, have spent months wooing T. Rowe Price, giving the firm plenty of reasons — namely a generous $26 million financial incentive package plus corporate tax breaks — to build its three-building complex in Pasco County.
So the company would walk away from all that money because of a single challenge from a tiny environmental group?
Fasano said in an interview Thursday that the objection to the permit is serious.
"The killer here," he said, "is the uncertainty of the delay."
With an administrative hearing on the permit challenge at least months away, he said, other suitors will step up.
"What stops another state from coming up with a generous package?" he said.
Fasano said he had no information about any other deals that the firm is working on with other states. T. Rowe Price has told state officials it was considering four locations out of state, but officials with those communities and the company have not made any comment on any offers or their status.
He said Pasco County has been top on T. Rowe's Price's list.
"My sources tell me that had this objection not been put up ... that the governor probably would be announcing some good news in the next few weeks," Fasano said.
Fasano said that when he heard about the challenge to the Southwest Florida Water Management District permit, he was "devastated." He said the Thursday Times article about the permit appeal should have carried the headline: "T. Rowe project goes over the cliff."
He sounded a decidedly more anxious note about the challenge than local officials, who on Wednesday said they were optimistic that T. Rowe would stick around for the fight.
Wetland in the way?
Citizens for Sanity, a 10-year-old group, said in its objection to the permit that T. Rowe Price would destroy "without compensation or mitigation" at least one wetland area and has also failed to explain how, during a severe drought, it plans to provide water to the development.
T. Rowe Price's engineering firm had said it does not need to mitigate because the wetland area in question is less than a quarter of an acre and does not support threatened species.
Clay Colson, a member of Citizens for Sanity, declined to elaborate on the objection or Fasano's charge that the group may have derailed the project. "It remains to be seen," he said Thursday evening. He said he is not opposed to T. Rowe Price, calling it "real business," but said, "There's no reason for destroying wetlands on that site."
In 2007, the group sued the Army Corps of Engineers for allowing the developer of the proposed Cypress Creek Town Center to pave 56 acres of wetlands. They later dropped the lawsuit, but the Sierra Club filed its own lawsuit. Construction has since halted on the 1-million-square-foot outdoor mall.
Baltimore-based T. Rowe Price has proposed relocating 435 jobs to Pasco from its Tampa investor center, then adding 1,215 more jobs over a decade. The average salary would be more than $47,000.
That proposed move represents a break in Pasco's decades-long status as a bedroom community that loses bids for white-collar or corporate jobs, such as the major Tampa expansion of the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in 2006.
Fasano said landing a big fish like T. Rowe Price is especially crucial now, given a county unemployment rate topping 10 percent.
"And now this small group comes out of nowhere and with one minor objection, they've put a halt to the possibility of Pasco getting economic stability," he said. "I just have a gut feeling they may have done something that can't be reversed."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.