PORT RICHEY — Lacy Herman lucked out with two blouses for $18 thanks to JCPenney's close-out sale last week, but don't count the 23-year-old University of South Florida student among U.S. 19's regular shoppers.
She prefers the Shops at Wiregrass and Westfield Countryside Mall.
"It doesn't have the stores I like," she said, explaining she went to Penney's at Gulf View Square Mall only because it was closing.
As Pasco County officials mull landscaping choices, traffic patterns and plenty of other options in a bid to spruce up the busy corridor, one question hovers over the rest: How to lure young shoppers like Herman?
Destinations like Citrus Park Mall in west Hillsborough, International Plaza in Tampa and Wesley Chapel's Shops at Wiregrass all compete with U.S. 19. And there recently came word of a 333-acre outdoor mall and movie theater planned in Trinity, adding to the competition.
The county welcomes the proposed center, but the new development and others like it are making the job of redeveloping U.S. 19 that much harder.
While a third of Pasco residents live in west Pasco close to the busy corridor, the area's aging, retiree demographic makes it a tough sell to retailers favored by 20- and 30-somethings.
Further, retail experts say that as west Pasco gets grayer and dollar stores and other discount retailers stake more territory on the corridor, that fight will only get more lopsided.
"Retirees are generally on fixed incomes and there's not a lot of opportunities for retailers to grow in areas that look like that," said John Fleming of the Florida Retail Federation.
Not ideal population
It's not all bad news for U.S. 19. The highway remains west Pasco's busiest commercial stretch, with about 60,000 vehicles daily and 20,000 jobs. The area accounts for about a third of Pasco's tax base. Retailers Ulta Beauty and TJ Maxx recently opened at Gulf View Square, and appliance retailer H.H. Gregg and Panera Bread have both opened nearby on U.S. 19.
But even if business is bustling, the area's demographics don't bode well for the future.
County demographers say 24 percent of the population west of Little Road is 65 and older, and 60 to 70 percent of residents there have low to moderate income. Of the area's 90,000-plus housing units, more than 20,000 are vacant.
That compares to 2,000 of Wesley Chapel's 17,000 housing units sitting empty and a 65-and-older population of 9 percent. Plus, median household income there exceeds $74,000 yearly.
Given the differences, it's no wonder retailers wanting a young, upscale customer base are turning to Wesley Chapel, Trinity and New Tampa.
"It's a chicken and egg problem," said Steve Kirn, executive director of the Miller Center for Retailing Education and Research at the University of Florida. "Retailers can't afford to open a store and wait around for customers to come to them. The customers have to be there."
Put another way, because young families gravitate to areas with other young families, U.S. 19 and the neighborhoods around it are being skipped over. And because retailers love young shoppers — especially upwardly mobile ones who can be cultivated into loyal brand followers — they're flocking to those areas, as well.
How this translates to consumers like Herman is plain: She isn't likely to frequent U.S. 19 anytime soon. She shops there now two or three times a year.
"It's so run-down looking. It's gross," she said.
Matt Armstrong is among Pasco's team of planners tasked with sprucing up the highway. The job remains one of the county's long-term priorities.
In April, it hired Florida State University to gather data to implement a massive redevelopment plan devised last year called the Harbors West Market Redevelopment/Infill plan.
Additionally, experts from the think tank Smart Growth America visited Pasco this week as part of a grant to identify redevelopment projects for Port Richey, New Port Richey and Pasco County. The group will present its report in a month.
Armstrong, a senior planner for the county, has no illusions about the challenges. Landscaping, attractive signage and street-scape improvements could help redefine U.S. 19 in the immediate term, and the county aims to push for all three. Low-interest loans and grants could offset costs for signs and other improvements. The county could coordinate those programs.
But he said changing the area's demographics will take years and require broad buy-in from property owners.
"Part of the challenge is to change not just the market demographic, but also to bring in different employment options," he said. "We need to look at diversifying the population not just with younger people specifically, but with a population that is multigenerational."
One possibility, he suggested, is to focus on walkable, mixed-use developments with homes, retail and offices coexisting at the same place to lure a range of age groups.
He suggested Gulf View Square as one possibility. It could be reconfigured with outdoor promenades and condominiums or town homes, as well as retail. It might also be tied to the Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park's trail system west of the mall to attract outdoor-themed businesses and restaurants.
In other cases, the county could acquire small, run-down properties, assemble them and sell them to developers.
Before the county takes any action, though, it will seek public input.
Starting this month, county staffers and FSU representatives will fan out across the U.S. 19 corridor to meet individually with businesses. Early next year, it will identify possible projects.
"Our intent is not to offend anyone, not to push people away who are there now, but to create opportunities for people, a better job, a better living situation," Armstrong said. "We need a collective vision about what the Harbors plan needs to be, what people want to see there."
The county's aim is to launch its first projects in about two years.
So, how long before any noticeable shift in demographics — and the resulting economic prosperity?
That's a tricky one. It could take 10 to 15 years to see some of those results, but that will depend on public support, political will and private investment, Armstrong said.
"It doesn't matter how much I want it," he said. "It's the collective desire of that community that will make it or break it."
Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Rich Shopes at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236. Follow @richshopes.