LAND O'LAKES — Connerton, once touted on billboards across the area as the region's exciting "New Town," has laid off its executive staff, including the man who played a key role in the vision and who has been a critical player in local and regional economic development efforts.
Dallas-based CoastOak Group, which bought the central Pasco development last year from Terrabrook in hopes of an economic revival, has laid off Stew Gibbons, who had been in charge of the firm's Southeast region.
"Difficult market conditions have prevented new builders from starting in the community up to this point, and these conditions are leading us to make some changes in our strategy to protect the quality and integrity of the Connerton community going forward," CoastOak spokesman Josh Nichols said. "We are reducing costs, which has resulted in the difficult decision to reduce our local staff. We appreciate all their efforts in creating Connerton and certainly regret that this step has become necessary. We remain committed to Connerton's future and to relaunching the community when market conditions improve."
Nichols said Gibbons has done "excellent work" and helped make Connerton "a first-class community."
Gibbons, 64, said he worked his last day for CoastOak on Thursday. Connerton's other two staffers, Pete Boudreau, vice president for finance, and Chip Jones, senior vice president for development, also were let go as full-time employees, but are still doing some contract work.
"Last spring was good, but it didn't bounce back," said Gibbons, who added that sales sagged as soon as the federal tax incentives expired. He said this spring, which is typically the peak sales season, was mixed but still slow.
"Things are tough right now," he said.
Housing analyst Marvin Rose called Gibbons "a good guy" and said his severance from CoastOak was a reflection of the sour market.
"I've talked to builders, and everyone is hoping for a resurgence in the spring of next year," Rose said. He said the county still has the highest impact fees in the region, and county commissioners' refusal to lower them earlier this year means the county's new housing market will recover more slowly. "It will be later than sooner," he said. "Pasco County's housing market is severely depressed."
Gibbons, a former chairman of the county's Economic Development Council who also chaired the regional board of the Urban Land Institute, said he is coping despite the loss of a job, thanks to his Christian faith and optimism that the economy will eventually turn around. The Georgia Tech grad and former Exxon employee remains proud of Connerton, which is also where he lives, as a development whose architecture, amenities and town center fostered a real sense of community among its residents.
"People like living there," he said.
Gibbons said he hopes to remain in the region and perhaps start his own development business with a group. He also hopes to remain active with the EDC and the Tampa Bay Partnership, where he has served on the transportation committee.
"Tampa Bay needs to decide what it's going to be," he said.
While the rejection of light rail was a "setback," Gibbons said the area desperately needs to develop more public transportation, especially if it hopes to attract smart, young professionals.
"There's been a huge drain," he said.
Seeking public office is not in his plans.
"I don't think that's my calling," he said. "I want to contribute regionally, and I'm not sure politicians are always able to do that. The private sector can bridge all the interests."
Lisa Buie can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4604.