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Penny for Pasco would pave the way for more county trails

Kim Rowe spends a lot of time in the saddle. Most weekdays, the owner of a northeast Pasco printing shop is up early for a 30- or 40-mile bike ride. He uses a three-wheel trike for trails, and faster recumbent bicycle for roads.

"During the weekend, I always get a 100-miler in, and then another 50 miles on top of that," he said. "Not bad for a 59-year-old man, huh?"

Rowe travels throughout Florida reviewing trails for his website, But most of his local trips are on the 46-mile Withlacoochee State Trail, which starts near his Trilby home and heads north through Citrus County. He was excited to learn that the trail would be extended south to Zephyrhills in a few years if voters approve a second round of the Penny for Pasco sales tax.

"That would be a great thing for Zephyrhills and Dade City," he said. If done right, "they would probably get a huge amount of people using the trail, which would help the businesses."

The Penny tax, which is included on the Nov. 6 general election ballot, would provide $26.2 million for hiking and biking trails. The rest of the county's $226 million share over the next decade would go toward road and public transportation projects, public safety equipment, environmental land acquisition and economic development.

The trail money would pay for a major expansion of Pasco's pathways, including several key connections to regional trails that the county has long desired but never had the money to build.

"Philosophically, (county commissioners) agreed that this is absolutely the kind of thing the Penny is intended for," said Michele Baker, chief assistant county administrator. "It's infrastructure that improves our quality of life."

The big-ticket item is the $13 million Bi-County Trail, which would stretch diagonally across Pasco from Trilby to Trinity. For long-distance cyclists like Rowe, it would connect the Withlacoochee trail with the trails in Starkey Wilderness Park and with the Pinellas Trail. It would also allow the county to host more triathlons and other races.

The project also revives a bit of history. The 12-foot-wide path follows the old Orange Belt Railway, which was built in the 1880s to connect Sanford and St. Petersburg. (Much of the 38-mile Pinellas Trail uses that same rail corridor.)

"That's the biggie," said Richard Riley, a Trilby activist who is chairman of a pedestrian citizens advisory group. "It is one that the county has identified as a priority."

Until now, Pasco expanded its trail system in bits and pieces. It encouraged state transportation agencies to include trails in large road projects, such as the popular Suncoast Trail that runs alongside the parkway of the same name. The Starkey Trail was also improved with federal stimulus money and some Penny proceeds.

"Right now, there's really no funding in the county for building trails," said Manny Lajmiri, a planner with the Pasco Metropolitan Planning Organization. "We just include them as part of right-of-way expansions or something like that."

If voters approve another 10 years of the Penny tax, it would pay for several other trail projects. There's a connection between two county parks near the Anclote River and the Pinellas Trail in Tarpon Springs. There's also a link between the Starkey Trail and a separate Pinellas Trail spur on East Lake Boulevard. Also on the list is a walking trail along Fivay Road and a pair of pedestrian overpasses where the Suncoast Trail intersects with State Roads 52 and 54.

Other projects included on a long-term future trail system would be added as the county widens or builds new roadways. Rudy Miller, a trails advocate who helped craft that plan, said land near hiking paths tends to have higher values compared with land further away.

"In today's world, there's a real demand for the opportunity for people to use these trails," he said.

Martha Campbell, an administrator in the county parks department, said she thinks of a trail almost as a "linear park." The hiking and biking paths provide recreation for nearby residents, she said. Linking up with other counties also encourages visitors to stop by Pasco's parks.

"Eventually, the hope is that there will be a trail system throughout Florida," she said. "This is a beginning for us."

Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.

Penny would be a lure for business

Thanks to a change in state law, the second round of the Penny for Pasco would include more than just infrastructure. About $45 million of the county's share of the tax would be used for economic development.

If voters decide next month to extend the Penny, officials would put some of the proceeds starting in 2015 into a trust fund that could be used for a variety of purposes. One option: beef up existing state and local incentive programs that give companies a cash payment for every job they bring to Pasco.

For most of the past several years, commissioners set aside $2 million to lure large companies and another $500,000 for small businesses. Michele Baker, the chief assistant county administrator, said money raised by the Penny would allow Pasco to better compete against larger counties with fatter wallets.

"If we had two big opportunities walk in the door, we might not be able to take care of those two big opportunities," she said.

But the money won't only be used for cash incentives, which some critics deride as welfare for corporations. It might be used to build roads or other infrastructure at a commercial site. It might also create flex space for start-up businesses.

"There are other uses than what I would call a deal-closing fund," said John Hagen, president of the Pasco Economic Development Council.

Hagen said the county has a lack of so-called "pad-ready sites" that would allow a business to quickly move in. Some of the money could pay for bringing a water or sewer line to a site or adding fiber for a potential data center.

"We did not have the over building in the office and industrial sector that you see in other counties," he said. "There's a lot of space that's available in Hillsborough and Pinellas that's vacant. We never had that much space to start with."

The county could also partner with a private firm to create a "business incubator" for start-ups. That setup would allow companies to bounce ideas off each other while sharing support services and some overhead costs.

"It's inexpensive space," Hagen said. "But it's also putting companies together who are at a similar stage of development."

— Lee Logan, Times staff writer

Penny for Pasco would pave the way for more county trails 10/13/12 [Last modified: Saturday, October 13, 2012 1:21pm]
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