NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco County needs one success story.
If the county can complete just one project to improve its blighted west side, county planners believe, it could serve as the spark that ultimately restores vitality to an area known for rundown homes, vacant stores and unsightly signs cluttering the U.S. 19.
"We plan to show residents we mean what we say when we put these plans in place," said senior planner Melanie Kendrick, one of the architects of a redevelopment plan for the area written a couple of years ago.
The sweeping plan, which last year won an award from the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, has yet to be put into action. A $200,000 proposal to move that along got cut out of this year's county budget because of flat revenues. To prevent further stalling, county planners hired Florida State University graduate students to gather demographic data. The county also was one of 18 communities to win a federal grant to get help from Smart Growth America, a nonprofit agency that encourages walkable, urban communities.
Last week, the two groups offered presentations to Pasco leaders. Smart Growth representatives talked about what attracts young adults to communities.
Unlike baby boomers, whose moves are driven by job opportunities, millennials tend to choose areas based on lifestyle amenities before looking for work. They also depend less on cars and would rather use public transit or a car service, unlike those who came of age in the mid- to late-20th century.
"We went to get our (driver's) license as soon as we could because it was how we socialized," said Smart Growth's John Robert Smith, a former mayor of Meridian, Miss. "We'd pack the car with our friends and go get a burger. They don't have to do that anymore — they have these," he said, holding up a smartphone.
As boomers age, more of them are also turning in their car keys, opting for areas with nearby stores and services, making walkable communities good for them, too.
Florida State students divided the area, known as the Harbors, into about 12 districts for the study. They zeroed in on one area dubbed "the Rivers district" that encompasses Main Street in New Port Richey, the Cotee River area and Millers Bayou in Port Richey.
Strengths included parks and waterfront property. The potential for flooding was cited as a weakness, along with the old Community Hospital closure, an underused downtown, poverty, aging housing and commercial stock, and high foreclosure rates.
Opportunities included: the historic Hacienda hotel in New Port Richey, which is slated for a revival; Millers Bayou; and low commercial property values.
About three dozen county and city leaders and residents then broke into teams to brainstorm ways to improve specific areas. By starting small, planners told the group, the odds of a quick success would be greater, breeding more success.
Ideas included; a parking deck at Millers Bayou; adding unique landmarks, such as an observation tower; improving water access so boats could pull up to restaurants; and connecting the trails at area parks to improve mobility.
The county will compile the ideas in a report in a few weeks. Smart Growth America will also publish its recommendations.
Senior county planner Matt Armstrong said the information will be vital in securing private investment, which is especially critical in the absence of government money.
"We need to make that pitch so we can be a success instead of just dreaming about it," he said.
Contact Lisa Buie at [email protected] or (813) 909-4604. Follow @Lisa_Buie.