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Leaders hope to save PHCC Wesley Chapel funding

WESLEY CHAPEL — While Gov. Rick Scott has threatened to veto more than a $100 million in college construction projects, local officials hope he will spare the $6.9 million needed to complete Pasco-Hernando Community College's Wesley Chapel campus.

"This is not a turkey," said state Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who helped secure the funding for the proposed 700-plus student campus, set to open in January 2014. "This has been approved by the Board of Education and vetted fully. It's been in the planning for probably 10 years. It's important to the community, and I hope the governor takes all that into consideration."

However, Weatherford, who is set to be House speaker next year and has a reputation for diplomacy, said Scott has the right to ax the money.

"Clearly the governor has the ability to veto whatever he wants," Weatherford said. He added that he doesn't think Scott will single out PHCC but will either approve or deny the whole list of college construction projects, which total $134 million.

"My hope is that he sees the value in this project and other (college construction) projects across the state," said Weatherford, who planned to be in Tallahassee this week and might pay Scott a visit to discuss the matter. He said he doubts Scott will make a decision for at least another week or two.

Scott warned Tuesday that he might veto the projects, which are part of the state's $69.7 billion budget, because the added debt could jeopardize the state's strong credit rating and drive up costs of future borrowing.

The news came as a surprise to PHCC board members, who said the topic did not come up at their board meeting Tuesday night.

"They already have allocated a little over $45 million" for the Wesley Chapel campus, board chairwoman Judy Parker said. "A veto of the $6.9 million would definitely affect the end of the completion date. I don't know what we'd do without it. We have to do Plan B, I guess."

Board member Tom Weightman said the new campus is needed because of the rapid growth in the central part of Pasco.

He noted that college president Katherine Johnson and her staff worked for years to secure the land, donated by the Porter family, as well as state approval of the money.

"This is an area I've heard Dr. Johnson say could someday end up being our largest campus within the PHCC system," he said. "It would be a disappointment … if the governor vetoes that appropriation. So many people are counting on it."

College officials were quiet on the topic Wednesday, saying only that lawmakers had recommended the money to be included in the budget in January. If the money is vetoed, they said, completion of the campus would be delayed, but they didn't say by how long.

Those seeking to bring high-wage jobs to Pasco County have said the campus is a critical piece of the development puzzle being assembled on the Wiregrass Ranch land in Wesley Chapel.

The area already is the site of a large outdoor shopping mall that draws customers from three counties.

Construction has begun on the future Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel, an 80-bed medical center that could be expanded to about 300 beds.

And financial giant Raymond James recently signed a letter of intent to buy property for a possible satellite campus that could bring up to 750 jobs. If the deal can be closed, it would be a major trophy for Pasco, which is trying to shed its image as a bedroom community for Hillsborough and Pinellas.

Community leaders have described the community college as a key asset in attracting businesses and foresee it being involved in partnerships with the hospital and the high school.

"There's no doubt businesses want to be around an education center," Weatherford said. "A community college like PHCC creates a wonderful training ground for talent. There's a synergy there. It's all a part of building the area as an employment center."

Leaders hope to save PHCC Wesley Chapel funding 05/19/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 19, 2011 8:53pm]
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