It was early 2009, and like thousands of other Tampa Bay residents, Richard Gehring needed a job.
The man who made a career of planning large projects in the public eye had just watched his latest effort — a complex of condos and shops in Dunedin — go belly-up thanks to a crashing economy. He spotted a job listing to replace Pasco County's longtime growth management chief, Sam Steffey, who retired after three decades of service.
A few weeks later, County Administrator John Gallagher snapped him up, saying the recession created a unique bargain. In normal times, he said, Gehring could command more than twice his $100,000 salary by doing the same work as a consultant. "The bad economy got me Gehring," he said.
Gehring, 63, jokes that he's "Gallagher's economic refugee," but he wasn't hired because he had a bit of hard luck. Commissioners and other officials say he's a key part of several major changes Pasco is making to move from a bedroom community to a real player in the Tampa Bay area.
"His task from administration has been, craft the long-term vision of what Pasco County wants to be when it grows up," said assistant county administrator Michele Baker. "And Richard's been excellent at that. He's very visionary."
Gehring and his staff just finished a series of public meetings on revitalizing West Pasco and the U.S. 19 corridor. At a recent meeting at Hudson High School, people heard dozens of ideas on improving traffic flow, making the area friendlier for pedestrians and creating redevelopment opportunities like an area in Port Richey similar to River Walk in San Antonio, Texas.
Attendees got to share their feedback and most were receptive to the changes. "Community redevelopment is something we really need. This is something that should've been started 20 years ago," said Gus Lawrence, 75, of Hudson.
After the event, Commissioner Jack Mariano said county planners didn't do that kind of public outreach before Gehring was hired.
"Everywhere I go, at these regional planning meetings, everyone tells me how great this guy is, how lucky we are to have him," he said.
A big part of Pasco's planning strategy is dividing the county into five areas. Officials want the U.S. 19 and State Road 54 corridors to be largely urban. Other areas, in north and east Pasco, will remain as green space or agricultural land. The county's new "mobility fee" works with that model by charging lower transportation fees on development in urban areas while discouraging growth in rural areas through higher fees.
The idea is to concentrate development and stop the "peanut butter approach," where growth used to go everywhere. When people live closer to where they work, they drive shorter distances and can even forgo the car once in a while. Gehring said it's really a spin on an old idea: smart growth.
Those efforts won Pasco the inaugural "One Bay" award in March from the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council. The award recognizes bay area governments for creating a sustainable plan for growth in homes and employment. Gehring prominently displays the large glass trophy at the public entrance to his office.
"When we got that One Bay award, he was so ecstatic," said Commissioner Ann Hildebrand. "When they put it in my hands, I said this belongs to Richard and his staff. They played a major, major role in that."
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Gehring grew up in Clearwater and married Susan, his sweetheart from Clearwater High. After a tour in the Air Force, he earned a political science degree at the College of William & Mary and then studied urban planning at the University of Virginia.
He did an internship in the planning department in Dunedin and sketched an early version of the city's downtown plan — the framework for what downtown looks like today. After grad school, he took over as the city's planning director and refined the plan by realigning State Road 580 to make downtown more pedestrian friendly.
He spent five years in that role and then another four as the city manager. In 2002, he served for six months as Dunedin's mayor.
"You've got 1 million people in (the metro area), but Dunedin has this character to it like a unique little village," said Gehring, who still lives in the city. "It has a sense of place as a town. That's really what I'd like to repeat."
Over the next two decades he developed plans for the West Shore district in Tampa, downtown St. Petersburg and the Carillon area. He was president of the company that built the high-end Tampa Palms development. At a consulting firm he started, he helped create Tampa's Channelside district, did a major rehab of the Port of Miami and rehabbed several ports around the country.
Along the way a couple of projects ran aground. About a decade ago, Gehring and some partners proposed a $50 million luxury Clearwater Beach resort, but the plans unraveled after tourism and the economy tanked after 9/11. More recently, the planned Marina 200 Main Street mixed-use complex in Dunedin fell apart after Gehring and other investors defaulted in 2008 on nearly $5.7 million in loans.
In both cases the developers cited the hardships of a souring economy.
Observers say Gehring's strength is taking the 10,000-foot view and imagining what a place could look like years in the future.
"Especially for those of us who have been here a long time, we drive past something every day and don't recognize the possibilities," said Commissioner Ted Schrader. "Someone with fresh ideas comes in and they see a wealth of possibilities."
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It's safe to say Gehring is a bit quirky. He's fluent in planner-ese, talking dense urban land areas, business plans and shifting population centroids. But then he'll shift to a surprising little metaphor: "The county went through a kind of metamorphosis. It wrapped itself up, it was a chrysalis, and it unlocked as a sort of butterfly from where it was in 2007 to where it is in 2010."
Taller than most, he has a distinctive white beard and thick black-rimmed glasses. He wears a bolo tie on casual Fridays and also sports an occasional bow tie. His presentations include light-hearted touches like a picture that says, "Sometimes I pretend to be normal. But it gets boring. So I go back to being me." (A reference to the "new normal" for economic development.)
During his first few weeks on the job, he crossed swords with commissioners on a relatively minor issue: changing 5 acres from light industrial to commercial use. The board approved the change over his objections. At the time, Commissioner Pat Mulieri lashed out at Gehring, saying, "I almost feel like you're saying we're stupid up here."
Last week, she laughed about the incident. "You have to learn Richard's style," she said. "He so excited about what he's doing, he never stops."
In addition to Gehring, officials praise his top deputy, Carol Clarke, who had 18 years of experience as Manatee County's planning director. The two had known each other for years through the state chapter of the American Planning Association, and Gehring hired her after she lost her job in Manatee.
"He's the dreamer, but Carol's the doer," Mulieri said. "Carol is the nuts and bolts girl. And you need both for success."
Officials are also impressed with the stable of sharp planners, mostly out of grad school, hired on Gehring's watch. He explains he'll likely only be around for a few more years and wants to leave a high-quality staff. "Everybody down there is a fresh breath of air," Baker said.
Many of the changes Gehring talks about — for example, a transit system linking Tampa with central Pasco — are easily more than a decade away. But he's still satisfied with getting an early start on big projects.
"Down the hall, in administration, they have to manage the present," he said. "At this end of the hall, I have to manage the future. . . . I've got to look out and say, 2020, 2035, 2050, what does Pasco have to be prepared for?"
Lee Logan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6236.