NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco County Commission Chairman Ted Schrader caused a stir Tuesday when he said Hillsborough County might not have a lock on a deal to get Amazon to build a 1-million-square-foot distribution center that would bring 1,000 jobs to the South Shore area.
"They're still looking in central Florida. There may be some opportunity for Pasco County," Schrader speculated from the dais.
But state officials put that notion to rest quickly. Pasco County, they said, isn't quite ready for prime time, much as local officials want it to be.
"What they need, I'm not sure Pasco has," said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who spoke with representatives from the Pasco Economic Development Council and Amazon last week. "They need to be up and running in the next 14 to 16 months. Speed is important. It would be a very uphill battle."
Pasco's top planners and business leaders have cited the need for pad-ready sites to lure employers who often need buildings quickly. The county's large tracts of vacant land give it an advantage over areas that are built out. That works for companies that are in no hurry, such as financial giants T. Rowe Price and Raymond James, which have announced plans to build expansions in Pasco.
But Pasco lacks sites with infrastructure, which slows the process and makes it less attractive to employers who need to be up and running, said Trey Starkey, chairman of the Pasco EDC board. He said the Amazon deal should serve as a wakeup call for Pasco to get ready to take advantage of growth as the economy recovers.
"We're not going to let the fish swim by without throwing a line, but when you don't got the right bait, you don't got the right bait," Starkey said of Amazon.
The EDC has been working with the county to remedy that. The county recently overhauled its land development code and replaced impact fees with a developer-friendly mobility fee. Fees also are waived in key areas that have been targeted for development.
"This is exactly what the board wants us to focus on," said Michele Baker, interim county administrator, who was offered the permanent job Tuesday. She said the county is discussing a program that would develop "certified pad-ready" sites that could be offered to prospective employers. A plan to develop virtual shell buildings is also included in this year's county budget.
The program would provide employers with plans that have already been vetted through the permitting process and expedite construction.
"We have started working on many of the pieces," Baker said. "Now we have to knit the pieces into whole cloth, then tell people we have it."
All that, she said, is key for Pasco to achieve its goal of being a premier county, closer to equal footing with its more urban neighbors to the south.
"This time wasn't our time," Baker said, "but we want to be ready for the next time and make the next time come sooner."
Hillsborough County officials have said Amazon and its affiliates would spend $200 million to build the center at the South Shore Corporate Park, a vacant expanse near Interstate 75 and State Road 674. The company says the park would employ 1,000 permanent employees, including 375 that pay at least 15 percent more than the average state wage, or $47,581.