NEW PORT RICHEY — City Council members desperate to unload costly real estate and rev the city's economic engine have enlisted the help of the Pasco Economic Development Council.
Council members voted unanimously Wednesday evening to hire the PEDC, though a final contract needs to be worked out. In addition to targeting dormant projects such as the redevelopment of the Hacienda Hotel, the PEDC will help the city develop an overall marketing plan, seek grants for economic development and launch an entrepreneur program to help small businesses.
The PEDC has proposed to bill the city $6,000 a month for 10 months of services. The money has already been allocated in the city's budget.
As part of the deal, PEDC vice president John Walsh will be the point-person for city matters, and a PEDC official will set up shop at City Hall to work on projects for about 16 hours a week.
The partnership represents a milestone for both sides. The city had previously used consultants from outside areas, most recently from an Orlando firm, on economic development and real estate decisions, but has never partnered with the PEDC.
And this would be the first time the PEDC provided such services to a Pasco city, CEO John Hagen told the Times.
Servicing Pasco's cities has long been a priority for the PEDC. And Hagen said New Port Richey is a great place to start, as it has unique qualities, such as its historic downtown, that need to be promoted.
"I feel like New Port Richey has more unrealized potential that any area in our community," Hagen said. "It has great bones."
Council member Bill Phillips said the city needs to move forward with selling or developing the Hacienda Hotel and the former First Baptist Church property at Orange Lake.
The city bought both sites during the real estate boom with the hope of pitching them to developers, only to be saddled with the debt payments on dormant properties after the market soured.
"Let's get off the dime and do something. I think this is the right mixture of expertise," Phillips said of the PEDC.
Phillips pointed to the Hacienda as one of the most glaring needs. For years, a proposed project with Georgia-based Community Development Partners to turn the historic building into a boutique hotel has stalled. Meanwhile, the crumbling building remains vacant and the debt service on it and other city-owned properties has brought New Port Richey to the brink of financial ruin.
The PEDC's proposal is to complete and submit a term sheet for development of the Hacienda to the council by February. PEDC staff will also help the city "evaluate the financial capacity and risk of continuing to work with CDP," and if warranted "market the property and identify other parties who could play a role in bringing the project to fruition."
Council member Judy DeBella Thomas raised the only dissent to hiring the PEDC. She did not attend the meeting or vote due to illness but had a statement read by City Clerk Doreen Summers in which she said the council should hold a work session at a later date to discuss ways the city could pursue economic development through cheaper means than the PEDC.
In her statement, DeBella Thomas said during the impending search for a new city manager, candidates with economic development experience could be sought.
She has also pushed for the Greater New Port Richey Main Street organization, which gets city grant funding, to be tapped as a resource.