NEW PORT RICHEY — With its rundown strip malls, traffic gridlock and hodgepodge of signs, the U.S. 19 corridor is known as an eyesore.
"When my family comes up here, I never take them on U.S. 19," Pasco County Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said. The highway was so ugly, Starkey recalled, that biologist Jane Goodall couldn't bear to look at it when she visited the county in 2000 to promote her "Roots & Shoots" youth education program.
"She had to close her eyes on 19, it was so horrible," Starkey said.
County planners, charged with the task of redeveloping the west side of the county, see the area as a diamond in the rough. Once the grime is cleaned away, they say, it can be restored to its once glimmering state as a waterfront paradise.
"If we focus only on our new growth, we will continue to have a problem and it will cause us more problems in the future," said Richard Gehring, the county's planning director.
On Tuesday, Gehring and his staff rolled out the west side redevelopment plan during a County Commission workshop. It's the first of five development plans for the county's five market areas.
The plans rebrand the areas, which were numbered, with appealing names. The west side area that extends the length of the county from the Hernando to Pinellas lines and from the coast to Little Road has been renamed the Harbors. Planners chose it to reflect the area's proximity to the Gulf of Mexico.
With a population of 200,000 "it's the most developed portion of the county," Gehring said. "It includes a third of your ratable tax base."
Planners cited the area's strengths, which include 7,000 lots with water access, as well as rivers and historic buildings.
Challenges include vacant property, aging homes, the county's highest foreclosure rate, lack of sufficient infrastructure, unsafe roads and a blighted appearance.
Community members who came to county-sponsored meetings helped planners come up with a list of overall goals. Those included providing better access and connection to the water; linking the coast with parks, downtown and the river; providing opportunities for active recreation; adding parks and gardens; providing community centers for events; retrofitting existing buildings rather than building more; maintaining and improving infrastructure; offering more public transportation; creating new gateways to the area and to the county; revitalizing neighborhoods; focusing on improving smaller roads as well as bigger ones; and increasing security and code enforcement to deal with poorly maintained properties, crime and homelessness.
Planners also divided the west area into 12 districts to further pinpoint neighborhood priorities. Gehring said they differed depending on the area, with the northern area putting eco-tourism at the top of the list, while the south rated curbing crime and homelessness as most important.
Access to high-wage jobs topped planners' lists as the top priority for the area.
Strategies included working to lure such companies to the area, supporting the development efforts of the Economic Development Council and the area's two cities, and using the rebranded image of the area to attract tourism.
Other items included working with the school district to share public areas such as parks and libraries and enacting an inspection program so rental homes will be required to meet minimum standards. County officials also want to work with the cities to find another use for the former Community Hospital in New Port Richey, which closed most of its operations last year when it built a new hospital in Trinity. One item that raised the eyebrows of County Commissioner Henry Wilson was studying the possibility of adding roundabouts to parts of U.S. 19.
Gehring said the option was among several under consideration to make the deadly corridor safer.
"This has to be one of the tools that work better in an area of less volume," he explained.
"It's a unique option," Wilson said.