LUTZ — Tom Ryan, economic development manager for the Pasco Economic Development Council, says he gets asked a common question from executives pondering a company relocation to Pasco.
"Where are my employees going to live, work and play?" Ryan said. "It's almost a cliche now."
The answer, he said, signals the changing demographics of Pasco County. They are choosing to live in Pasco, where, in some locations, particularly along the State Road 54 and State Road 56 corridor, higher-end housing is the new norm, catering to an expanding, educated workforce.
"This isn't the Pasco County we knew 10 years ago," said J.D. Porter of Wiregrass Ranch.
Their comments came last week during the Pasco EDC's third annual meet-the-developers breakfast, at which 130 brokers, bankers, engineers, small-business owners, land-use lawyers and others networked and received updates on four developments: Starkey Ranch, Bexley, Wiregrass Ranch and Epperson, which is part of the connected city corridor in Wesley Chapel.
The average new home price in the Wiregrass development, east of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, is $450,000, Porter said, with the average buyer six years younger, but with a median income 49 percent higher than typical home buyers across the country.
There, the housing boom followed the construction of the Shops at Wiregrass mall, Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel, the Porter campus of Pasco-Hernando State College and other nonresidential uses.
"We basically fill in the hole in the doughnut," Porter said about housing trailing the other uses.
It also meant employment centers already were in hand to drive home buying.
"Your higher-wage earners don't want to lose time stuck in traffic," said Ryan, noting that the vice president of Tru Simulation + Training, a company expanding in Lutz, purchased a home in Starkey Ranch because it is a 10-minute drive to work.
The progress reports to the PEDC audience showed Epperson, east of Interstate 75, has not yet opened, but has sold 15 homes. At Starkey Ranch in Odessa, buyers have closed on 157 homes, and 149 others are under contract. The average price is a little more than $425,000. The most expensive was $874,000, the least expensive $266,100. To the east, Bexley by Newland Communities opened in November in Land O'Lakes and has sold 70 homes averaging about $350,000.
The activity helped push Pasco's average sale price in January to $177,000, a 24.2 percent jump over a year earlier. Contrast that to the most recent information available from the U.S. Census — showing the median value countywide of owner-occupied homes at $117,800 over a four-year period ending in 2015 — and the reason for the optimism becomes apparent.
"One thing that ties this together is quality," Bill Cronin, president and CEO of the PEDC, said about the developments and their roster of luxury amenities and proposed commercial enclaves. Combined, they bring an "oh, wow" factor, he said, indicating to the public, "That's not the Pasco I knew."
While the focus was on the rosy residential market, the presenters — Porter, Matt Call of Starkey Ranch, Tom Panaseny of Newland Communities and Kartik Goyani of Metro Development — also touched on retail and industrial developments. Among the details shared during the session at the Residence Inn by Marriott in Lutz:
• Ryan said 64 locations in the county can be targeted for site-ready industrial use. After the properties are certified as site-ready, the information will be delivered to national consultants who help companies pick relocation spots.
• Porter revealed that Wiregrass Ranch is on the short list of potential sites for two Fortune 200 companies seeking land for separate employment centers that have a combined total 1.8 million square feet.
• Newland Communities is projected to build 1,720 homes and apartments, plus 562,000 square feet of offices and 94,000 square feet of retail space on 1,733 acres, but plans to acquire 600 additional acres from the Bexley family later this year, essentially growing its project by one-third. The company previously has disclosed plans for a Florida Hospital 24-bed stand-alone emergency room and medical office building and a 110-room SpringHill Suites by Marriott.
• Starkey Ranch expects to begin construction on its town center, at SR 54 and Gunn Highway, later this year. The northward extension of Gunn Highway and the realignment of the SR 54 intersection is scheduled to begin this month and finish around Thanksgiving. The shopping center on intersection's northeast side will be anchored by Publix and is projected to open in 2018.
• Three other colleges/universities will join the Saint Leo University-anchored education center within the Epperson development. It is the initial project within the connected city corridor, the first smart gigabit community built from the ground up in the nation. Its most high-profile amenity is the 7.5-acre Crystal Lagoon that is under construction.