NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco County officials are betting the economy is improving to the point where it's time to invest millions of dollars in economic development projects.
The county's planning director, Richard Gehring, has asked commissioners to consider creating an office of economic growth to work with developers in creating "pad ready" office and industrial sites. The idea is that by pitching areas with infrastructure already in place, businesses will be more likely to locate there to get up and running.
The office would be staffed by senior planner for economic development Melanie Kendrick and up to four new positions, though those jobs likely would be filled gradually over several years as construction picks up.
The idea for an economic growth office emerged after a meeting in April in which John Hagen, director of Pasco's economic development council, told county commissioners to start planning now for ways to work with businesses that hope to locate to Pasco.
In January, the county will begin collecting an estimated $4.5 million a year in Penny for Pasco sales tax revenue as part of a new fund dedicated to economic development. Gehring wants to use part of that money to support the proposed office.
"Penny for Pasco is such a great opportunity for us," said Hagen, who has been working with Gehring on the proposal. "I'm excited about the prospect of having some tools to go out and do something."
Hagen said buildings and pad-ready sites are critical to recruiting new businesses.
He cited online retail giant Amazon, which inquired in Pasco but chose Hillsborough because it had a site that could allow it to open by the 2014 holiday shopping season.
A recent meeting with Enterprise Florida, the state's economic development arm, drove the point home, he said.
"We said, 'How can we get more attention from you guys?' " Hagen said. State officials told him that "virtually everybody we're talking to is looking for a building. The ones that aren't are looking for a pad-ready site. The closer you get to having something that's ready to go, the higher the probability is you're going to capture the project."
Hagen said timing is critical when jump-starting economic development. Because it will take 10 years for all Penny for Pasco proceeds to accumulate, he has pushed for borrowing against that money to avoid a lag time.
"The sooner we can implement some of the projects, the quicker we can show the impacts," he said. "If you just kind of do things in a way where every year you're doing a little bit, so to speak, you don't get as much impact."
The county already awards incentives to bring companies to Pasco, adjusting the incentive amount to the number of jobs the company promises to create. What the county proposes now is to create a new layer of incentives with the sole aim of encouraging commercial development.
Gehring said he envisions partnering with local land owners and developers to award incentives to ease costs related to engineering, planning and permitting. Those "soft costs" can amount to 6 to 8 percent of a project's construction bill.
"We want to incentivize partnerships to bring those costs down," he said.
In other cases, the office might purchase several small lots suitable for development and then cobble them together to create industrial or business parks.
The county will need to hire more planners to review incentive applications, identify potential projects and shepherd them through the approval process, Gehring said.
The number of projects will dictate how many planners to bring on. He said it's likely two would be hired to start.
County commissioners have yet to approve Gehring's plan, though they've voiced support for economic development.
Commission Chairman Jack Mariano, however, cautioned against hiring more staff until a review of Kendrick's case load and duties is performed to see whether she's being effectively used. He also said he was reluctant to develop pad-ready sites "on spec," saying he's worried about trying to predict the market.
"I want to partner with someone. I would like someone come to the county commission or come to staff and say, 'I want to do this,' " he said.
Rich Shopes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6236. Follow @richshopes.