DADE CITY — As the economy starts to pick up in the next couple of years, Pasco is well-situated to attract employers, at least geographically.
Pinellas is largely built out. Companies are starting to have trouble finding top-shelf sites in Hillsborough. There's one thing Pasco has in spades: dirt.
"Pasco has the strong position for Tampa Bay because we have the predominant amount of land," county growth management chief Richard Gehring said during a commission workshop Tuesday.
Bob Gray, a consultant with Strategic Planning Group, added, "You are in the major growth center for the region. It doesn't have any place to go in Pinellas. There's very few places in Hillsborough. Where's it going to go?"
The next step is turning all that dirt into industrial parks and office complexes. And that's where the county has work to do.
In the next 15 years, Gray's firm estimates Pasco will need up to 7.2 million square feet of additional office space and another 20 million square feet of industrial space. And as of now, there's a dearth of so-called "pad-ready" sites, locations with approved site plans, utility connections and basic improvements like curbs and gutters. The only thing a prospective business would need is a building permit.
"The more pad-ready you have, the better off you are," Gehring said.
Many landowners, he said, have watched office parks sit empty for years during the down economy. They're skittish about sinking an investment into a property that might not pay off quickly.
One idea: The county could buy land now, while prices are cheap, and develop the property as a public-private partnership. That way, locations would be ready to go if a company comes knocking.
The county could offer a long-term lease on a site that the business would eventually own. Or the location could be part of the county's incentive package.
"What is the private sector doing to help develop pad-ready sites?" Commissioner Ted Schrader said. "You have to ask yourself if we're better off to buy land while it's cheap … if it's the right opportunity. I'm just thinking out loud."
John Walsh, vice president of the Pasco Economic Development Council, said he knows of three specific deals that went to Hernando over Pasco.
"It was less related to incentives and more related to pad-ready sites," he said. "They didn't have to wait."
Short of investing in an office or industrial park, the county could convince landowners to adopt a generic site plan, so a business only needs an amendment for its specific configuration.
Over the next several months, Gehring's staff will evaluate specific economic development strategies for each area of the county. Part of that proposal could include the county investing in land, or it could include a comprehensive inventory of available locations so that economic development officials could promote.