Pasco is working under the radar.
As the county tries to shed its status as a bedroom community, officials are rolling out a low-key approach to economic development. Part of the plan includes heading to neighboring counties to market Pasco to lawyers, industrial park developers and commercial real estate brokers.
The goal is to land some big game. Businesses that want to move to Tampa Bay but can't find ideal sites in Hillsborough or Pinellas. Local firms that want to expand but are also struggling to find space.
But it's a delicate dance. Pasco, the bay area's little brother, doesn't want to upset the big boys down in Tampa.
As County Commissioner Jack Mariano said at a recent workshop: "Without being predatory, how does one go to Hillsborough and Pinellas and say, 'Look, we want to just be ready. We're not trying to take your people, but if they are looking to go somewhere else, we want to make sure we get them.' "
John Hagen, president of the Pasco Economic Development Council, calls the situation a "coop-etition." Cities and counties should work together to keep jobs from fleeing to other metro areas. But they will still fight to land the jobs once a company settles on Tampa Bay.
"When companies start to look around, we're going to compete to get them into our community and get the jobs in our area," Hagen said. "But we also realize there's no point in being destructive about it."
Last year, Hagen and county growth management chief Richard Gehring held four meetings throughout the region to gauge people's perceptions about Pasco and to underscore the county's advantages. Gatherings were held in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Polk. They also met with a group of young professionals mostly from Tampa.
Pasco's big edge is land. There's plenty of space that can one day become dense office towers or industrial parks, especially along State Roads 54 and 56 in the county's southern tier.
"They know the reality," Gehring said. "Major brokers will tell the region that finding a site bigger than 25 acres in either (Hillsborough or Pinellas) is near impossible without a major redevelopment effort."
Michael Bailey, a commercial real estate broker for Nye Commercial Advisors in Wesley Chapel, said that situation presents a simple choice for other local governments.
"Pasco has the sites available," he said. "Either Pasco is going to land some of these companies, or they're going to go to a completely different market.
"If you're Hillsborough or Pinellas, would you rather have a company in your region that's going to improve the entire region, or would you rather have them go to Dallas or Denver or Charlotte?"
Mike Herr, the former Polk County manager who now runs an engineering and planning firm in Lakeland, was impressed after meeting with Pasco officials. He called it a "breath of fresh air" that Pasco's economic development team is working closely with its growth management arm. He likes Hagen's idea of "coop-etition," as long as a deal makes sense for both counties.
For example, a regional mall likely wouldn't work in Zephyrhills, because folks in north Lakeland already have ample shopping options. But eastern Zephyrhills is a prime area for industrial jobs that might also benefit Polk residents.
"We just don't step on each other's toes," Herr said, when asked about the pitfalls of cooperating and fighting for jobs at the same time. "It's part of the practice of recruiting the best. Your goal is to create opportunities for people, no matter where those opportunities are."
Bob Gray, a planning consultant in Ponte Vedra Beach, said critics might accuse Pasco of cannibalizing jobs or "robbing Peter to pay Paul."
The county's strategy isn't that blunt. For example, you won't see County Administrator John Gallagher in Carillon chatting up business owners about the risk of hurricanes. (That was a key concern that led Raymond James Financial to plan a new campus in Wesley Chapel.)
"We're not going right down there in their face, knocking on the businesses' doors, saying, 'Hey, you got a minute?' " he said.
There's still a sales strategy at play, though.
Consider: Four of the five possible expansion sites for Raymond James were in Pasco. Why there?
While working on a different project, a Pasco economic development official took a windshield tour of State Road 54 with a real estate broker. That broker later suggested the area to Raymond James. With the help of $15 million in state and county incentives, the company agreed to build two 100,000 square-foot office towers at Wiregrass.
"It's to everybody's advantage, if that building cannot be (located) in your individual area, to pass it within the region," Gray said. "It means those dollars would spread back out, so everybody benefits."
Hagen said it's important to build a regional brand because most companies seek out metropolitan areas.
"Pasco County in particular, we're really dependent on how they view Tampa Bay," he said. "If Tampa Bay is viewed as a really terrible place, it's going to be hard for us in Pasco to market against that problem."
Though Hagen wants to use that image to Pasco's advantage, he quipped: "There's no truth to the rumor that Pasco is going to change its name to Tampa Bay County."
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.