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State Road 54 corridor drives Pasco County's economic development again in 2013

Once again, the State Road 54 corridor dominated the headlines when it came to business and economic development in 2013.

A private toll road, parks and an outlet mall were all discussed as ways to improve residents' quality of life and lure tourism and economic development. But at year's end, the projects all remained in limbo.

Described as the first in the state, the toll road was proposed to alleviate traffic congestion in the area by adding elevated managed lanes along state roads 54 and 56 across much of the county. The project, talked about in late 2012, became closer to reality when a private investment group submitted an unsolicited bid to build and operate the road.

It seemed inevitable until a group of visiting experts expressed concerns, citing aesthetics and the need to build pedestrian-friendly communities.

Those words of caution from the Urban Land Institute pushed the proposed road into the slow lane. But county officials are still considering whether to pursue the project, called a "game changer" by Pasco economic development officials.

"For the first time in Pasco's history it will be possible to go from U.S. 19 to U.S. 301 with virtually no interruptions if and when completed," said John Hagen, president and CEO of the Pasco County Economic Development Council, the public-private partnership with the goal of luring high-wage jobs to the area.

Hagen said the Wesley Chapel and Trinity areas are both places "that investors are keeping an eye on for future projects."

Along the corridor, the Cypress Creek Town Center got an environmental permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, which will allow it to move forward with plans for a regional outlet mall similar to one in Ellenton.

The property, which sits at the Interstate 75/State Road 56 interchange, was originally slated for a "lifestyle center" similar to the Shops at Wiregrass. But a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club against the Corps for granting a permit halted the plans. Meanwhile the Shops at Wiregrass lured the upscale mall tenants to its site off Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.

After the appeals were settled, the Cypress Creek land became repurposed for outlet stores.

Officials with Simon Properties, outlet mall developers, have not submitted applications with the county but say they hope to open the outlets in 2015.

Parks also were front and center this year, though agreements are still being negotiated.

The Porter family, owners of the Wiregrass Ranch, donated 138 acres to the county to be used for a multifield park aimed at luring youth sports tournaments. The $34 million complex is being funded with part of the $14 million in hotel taxes accumulated over two decades. Tampa-based Blue Marble Strategic, which is also seeking private investment, has proposed 19 fields.

Farther west, county officials are proposing an innovative partnership with the Pasco County School District to build a park and school on the same site near the Starkey development in the Trinity area.

The project would include sports fields, tennis courts, a playground as well as a school for grades kindergarten through eight and a stand-alone library that would serve the public and students. The site would also include a black box theater to be shared between the county and the school. Officials hope to have students working there on lighting and other equipment to train for jobs.

Pasco-Hernando Community College also is finishing up construction of its $45 million Porter Campus at Wiregrass Ranch in Wesley Chapel.

Classes are set to begin there next month as the college rebrands itself as Pasco Hernando State College and begins offering four-year degrees in applied sciences and nursing.

In other business news, startups found a place to be nurtured in the new SMARTstart incubator in Dade City. The facility, at the Dade City Business Park, is 2,500 square feet and can serve up to five businesses. Officials hope to open a second one in New Port Richey.

State Road 54 corridor drives Pasco County's economic development again in 2013 12/24/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 24, 2013 5:24pm]
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