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Falkenburg Road emerging as County Center east

TAMPA

For nearly two decades, much of Hillsborough County government has called a downtown Tampa office tower sometimes referred to as the Pink Palace home.

Need to renew a driver's license or request a permit to build something in unincorporated Hillsborough? Frederick B. Karl County Center, the building named for the former county administrator who brokered its 1992 purchase, is a one-stop shop.

But in the years since, a second hub of county government service has emerged along Falkenburg Road in a more central part of Hillsborough. It doesn't have a unifying name, but for many residents of eastern and southern Hillsborough, in particular, it's the place to go if you need to register to vote, adopt a stray dog or pick up a loved one from the clink.

The Falkenburg Road government complex is slated to grow in importance in coming years as a new Tax Collector's office breaks ground and the county develops a new emergency operations center. County real estate officials are evaluating what else they might build there to better serve a public spread over more than 1,000 square miles.

The growth in importance of the Falkenburg Road complex is part of a deliberate attempt by county officials to move government services closer to where people live.

"We're going to continue to push services out," County Administrator Mike Merrill said. "We can operate better closer to the people we serve."

Starting in 1984, county government started buying up land in an area that was largely undeveloped and considered the outskirts of town, even — something hard to imagine today. The first pieces included roughly 300 acres along Falkenburg between Reeves and Woodberry roads in Brandon purchased for $10.6 million. Later, in 2005, the county acquired another 200-plus acres for $11.7 million.

Initial plans called for construction of the sort of thing typically located in the hinterlands — a wastewater treatment plant and accompanying sprayfields. But technology changed and the sprayfields were no longer needed, said Peggy Smith, the county's interim director of real estate services, though the treatment plant got built.

What developed in place of sprayfields was still much of the less pleasant business end of county government: Its main jail, animal shelter, warehouses and a waste-to-energy plant. The county also rented office space across Falkenburg Road for parks, affordable housing and code enforcement administrative offices.

"It is very convenient for the eastern part of the county, as well as the southern part and even the north because it's close to the interstate," Smith said. Look at a map and it's more of less the geographic center of the county.

In more recent years, the supervisor of elections has made greater use of the property as a place to register and vote, not just for the counting and storing of ballots afterwards. Last month, commissioners approved letting Tax Collector Doug Belden build a $2.7 million, 20,000-square-foot office on a part of the property just south of Columbus Drive.

"This place is becoming more and more important and more and more viable," said Swati Bose, section manager for facilities management services for the county. "It's become a very attractive location for county services."

Belden currently leases space nearby. With the state requiring tax collectors to take over issuing all driver's licenses, Belden needed more space, particularly for parking.

Belden hopes to be open for business in 2014. The emergency operations center, which will be moved from cramped quarters on Hanna Avenue near Seminole Heights, should open a year later.

The county is now doing a comprehensive analysis of the real estate it owns and the services it provides. Officials are trying to figure out buildings that could be used to offer additional services, such as libraries or recreation centers.

They also plan to ask residents their preferences for accessing various county government services.

Falkenburg Road has been considered at times as a potential location for a "government mall," a central location for residents to go to, say, pay their taxes or seek permission to add a room to their house. Until the analysis is complete, no determination has been made on that front.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3387.

Falkenburg Road emerging as County Center east 01/05/13 [Last modified: Saturday, January 5, 2013 3:31am]
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