ZEPHYRHILLS — The CSX rail line running along prime industrial land near the Zephyrhills airport is more valuable than you might think.
"To industrial property, rail is kind of like oceanfront property to residential," said Zephyrhills real estate agent Matt Hulbert. "CSX makes us a Southeast regional player."
Hubert and other local officials made their pitch to Florida's top business recruiter on Thursday, selling Zephyrhills and southeast Pasco as a prime spot for industrial and distribution jobs.
They focused on 1,400 acres of industrial land near that rail line, which should see a major jolt in traffic in the coming years. CSX recently sold a portion of a parallel track for a commuter passenger system in Orlando. A prospective company could also partner with the Port of Tampa, which is just 40 minutes to the south.
"You've got the right ingredients here," said Gray Swoope, the state secretary of commerce and head of the economic development group Enterprise Florida. "Rail property that is on a main line is getting harder and harder to find in the United States. That's a real competitive advantage."
The goal: When Swoope talks to a company looking to build a distribution hub, he might remember his time in Pasco County.
But the group — which included state lawmakers, a county commissioner, the sheriff and city officials — kept tripping over one major problem. Roads. Nearly all of the city's routes to Interstate 75 are two-lane.
"Without any kind of transportation connection, we're not going anywhere," said Tim Linville, whose family owns large portions of the industrial land near the airport. "I hate to start out with a negative, but it's reality. We know Zephyrhills is not going to grow until we get something more than two-lane roads."
"If these roads were built today, we would have economic expansion today," said Sen.-elect Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby. "They're not coming without it."
Both Simpson and fellow incoming Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, said the county's high-powered legislative delegation makes it a perfect time to garner scarce state road cash.
Zephyrhills City Manager Jim Drumm praised the planned extension of State Road 56, calling it a "bridge" that would link his city with Wesley Chapel.
But a solution to the road problem is elusive. When tax money is at stake, the word "roads" might as well be translated as "dollar signs."
State road building coffers aren't exactly flush. The county just restructured its road financing system to rely on future property tax growth. And if Pasco's right-of-way ordinance is struck down in court, that could mean even higher costs.
Said Commissioner Ted Schrader: "It all comes back to money."
When courting companies, Swoope suggested the city embrace regional assets like the University of South Florida and major sports teams. And he also said the city's road story isn't all dour.
"You can't say everybody is going to eliminate you because of your road system," he said. "You've got plans. You know how you're going to address it. That's a huge advantage."
Lee Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.