The city of New Port Richey gets a hug.
A pat on the back and an air kiss, too.
The affection comes from folks representing the Urban Land Institute. The non-profit ULI serves as a think tank on urban planning with a mission to create and sustain thriving communities. It has twice provided advice to Pasco County government officials since 2008.
Last week, a team visited New Port Richey for 36 hours as part of a $10,000 study of the neighborhoods and housing stock. Essentially, the city seeks to turn renters into homeowners.
But, really, it was a love fest as the team presented its initial findings to City Council.
They love what the city is doing.
Love the downtown.
Love the city’s history.
Love Sims Park.
Love the urban agriculture commitment.
Love the Pitchlachascotee River.
This is not an exaggeration. Here are some of the comments offered by the seven-member panel.
The city has "real great things to advance. You’re ahead of these (other) communities in many ways and of that you should be proud.’’
"You’re the cool place. New places are all the same. You’re different.’’
"I just believe in what you’re doing.’’
If you were up on the dais, you had to feel pretty good about all this.
"Nice to get some positive reinforcement,’’ Deputy Mayor Bill Phillips said via teleconference.
There were no bold recommendations. A lot of this stuff has been talked about for years, like annexing adjoining property and creating identifiable city boundaries.
And some of the suggestions already are in the works. The signs to delineate the city’s entrances are on order. A charging station for electric vehicles is operational and two more will be shortly. A bicycle and pedestrian trail — connecting the river walk at Grand Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue to the Starkey Trail Connection at Congress Street — got the go-ahead nearly three years ago.
But you can understand why the city sought some outside advice. Forty-one percent of the occupied homes are rentals. Contrast that to the rest of the county where 73 percent of homes are owner-occupied. This has meant a lower socio-economic demographic for the city that must contend with the blight, code and law enforcement issues that can accompany absentee landlords and transient tenants.
The city posed five questions to the ULI in advance of the visit. What’s the city’s role in filling foreclosed or vacant houses? How do you create cohesive and proactive neighborhoods? Is there a way to increase the value of units within the five mobile home parks in the city? What can the city do to encourage reinvestment and home ownership? And are there incentives the city should offer to do that?
The ULI recommendations included:
• Recruiting individual leaders in each neighborhood to foster communication
• Designating a staff person as neighborhood ombudsman to listen to residential concerns and relay them to the appropriate city department
• Keeping up the code enforcement efforts
• Changing the land-use plan to allow mobile home sites to be redeveloped for other uses
• Prohibiting new mobile homes in coastal hazard areas
• Working with real estate agents to catalogue vacant residential lots and market them to builders
• Encouraging construction of town homes, rather than duplexes
• Setting measurable performance goals to find out why people may not use the city’s grant program to fix up facades.
Frankly, it was kind of tame compared to past ULI advisory panels in Pasco. In 2008, the ULI report on Pasco’s business development climate provided such a harsh critique of county government that it spurred a cultural change. What followed were a litany of strategies including devising five market areas, pushing growth to the U.S. 19 and State Road 54/56 corridors, and empowering staff to made administrative decisions that formerly fell to the Development Review Committee.
A return visit in 2013 was most noteworthy for the ULI suggestion to kill a controversial proposal to build a 30-mile elevated highway above SR 54/56.
Nothing that juicy in New Port Richey.
"We don’t have the answers,’’ said Stuart Rogel who chaired the ULI panel. "We have ideas.’’
The idea I got was that they really love New Port Richey.
Reach C.T. Bowen at [email protected] or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2