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Pasco has glimmers of hope in a tough economic year

The good thing about 2009? It wasn't 2008.

Pasco County business saw a year with a few more ups than the previous year that was marked by transitions in key agencies.

On the upside, financial giant T. Rowe Price now owns property in Pasco County. The Baltimore-based firm paid $13.5-million for 94 acres off State Road 54, taking its most concrete step yet toward building an office complex envisioned to bring 1,600 jobs to Pasco County over the next decade.

Downside: the sour economy prompted the company to ask for an extension of its deadline to finish its first building, from 2013 to 2015.

Upside: Dais Analytic Corp. an Odessa-based maker of nanotechnology-based air filtration systems, announced a $200-million deal to export its product to China. The agreement is expected to create 1,000 jobs in Pasco County, where nearly half the work force commutes across county lines to work, a statistic officials are working passionately to change.

Downside: Dais Analytic isn't taking applications for the new jobs yet. But stay tuned, says CEO Tim Tangredi.

The new jobs can't come too soon for a county that saw unemployment climb this year to 12.7 percent in September. That rate inched down to 12.5 percent in October. And housing starts continued to be anemic, with the county reporting only 1,111 starts for single-family homes for the first six months of 2009. The number represented a 43 percent drop from 2007's total of 1,955 and is down about 85 percent from the 2005 peak of 7,252. Connerton, a huge development once billed as a new town, was put up for sale. It closed in December with owner Terrabrook still negotiating with a potential buyer.

The double-digit employment rates came during a year in which two key business organizations lost their leaders.

The Pasco Hernando Jobs and Education Partnership, the non-profit agency that oversees unemployment benefits and job placement for the two counties, found itself with no permanent leader in June, when longtime president Lee Ellzey was fired amid a whistle blower's allegations of financial mismanagement that also involved a company owned by work force board Chairman Steve Jensen, who resigned. The case was turned over to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and remains open.

A month later, the Pasco Economic Development Council forced out its CEO, Mary Jane Stanley, after a decade at the helm. The council didn't give a reason.

Stanley is now doing consulting work for other counties.

After a search that some criticized as too long, the EDC board hired John Hagen, director of economic development for the city of Surprise, Ariz., a community of about 110,000 about 45 minutes from downtown Phoenix.

Hagen, 59, was a finalist along with former Pasco schools assistant superintendent Ray Gadd, a favorite among some local leaders. But Gadd withdrew after he accepted a job as interim president of the Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services, a non-profit social services agency whose former chief committed suicide after resigning amid reports of fiscal mismanagement.

One of Hagen's primary jobs will be fundraising, as the agency, which gets nearly half its budget from the county, seeks to wean itself from the public coffers.

The year also marked continued delays of two developments as the projects continued to be mired in legal problems.

The developer of Ashley Glen, the proposed 1.8-million-square-foot office complex at State Road 54 and the Suncoast Parkway, filed for bankruptcy protection in June to halt foreclosure proceedings on the 260-acre property. Mercantile Bank began foreclosure proceedings Feb. 26 against Ashley Glen LLC, development company JES Properties and owner Doug Weiland, saying he owes $21.5-million on a $24-million loan. The filing came after Weiland missed an interest payment in January. But Ashley Glen and another development entity, Riverwood LLC — both owned by JES Properties and Weiland — filed Chapter 11 petitions, which stopped the foreclosure process.

Trinity Town Center, the once highly anticipated Main Street-style shopping complex at Trinity Boulevard and Little Road, also continued to face problems caused by unpaid bills. To emerge on top of the heap, developer Bill Planes' general contractor firm sued nearly everyone involved in the construction — including his other company that owns the entire project.

One big project got a green light — sort of. Cypress Creek Town Center, which had been stalled for 18 months amid environmental challenges, got its permit reinstated in September after agreeing to pay a $297,000 fine for violating the federal Clean Water Act and discharging muddy water in the Cypress Creek, a federally protected waterway and a tributary to Tampa's water supply. Shortly afterward, Rep. Kathy Castor asked the Environmental Protection Agency to review the Army Corps of Engineers' decision to reinstate the permit. The results of that are pending.

Gulfview Motors, an institution in west Pasco, closed in June, citing the poor economy. The shutdown put 80 people out of work. Target Corp. also announced plans to close its Port Richey store in January, citing poor profits. The store's 85 employees were to be offered jobs at the county's five other Target stores.

In central Pasco, Walmart, a major anchor at Village Lakes Shopping Center for more than 20 years, closed in November. The next day, company officials opened a new Walmart Supercenter with more than double the space of the old store about a mile away near the apex of Dale Mabry Highway and U.S. 41. The company said the new store would employ 380 workers and would create 240 new jobs as a result of the move.

Pasco has glimmers of hope in a tough economic year 01/02/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 2, 2010 1:59pm]
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