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Hernando chased wrong pot of gold on parkway's rainbow

From the Corporate Boulevard overpass on the Suncoast Parkway, you can look down on the Hernando County Airport Industrial Park and see the corrugated steel walls of a few factories — too few.

A couple of miles south, near County Line Road, you can see the many homes and residential lots in Trillium and the Villages at Avalon — too many.

This is the part of the county brought closest to Tampa by the parkway and, I figured, probably the best place to see what the road has meant to Hernando since the first 32-mile stretch opened 10 years ago, in early February 2001.

If you lived here at the time, you no doubt remember the talk.

Or hype is more like it, because this was a big deal. With the parkway, we would become, at long last, a full-fledged part of the Tampa Bay area.

And while a few people talked about how this would help attract industry, a lot more of them talked a lot more persuasively about the coming revolution in housing.

Hernando could be a bedroom community for Tampa, the boosters said. And they said it like it was a good thing.

They were right in one way. The parkway was a potential economic rainbow. We just chased the wrong pot of gold.

So, of course, did the entire country, and especially Florida. Even without the parkway, there would have been a housing boom and bust in Hernando.

But there wouldn't have been this much of a boom: 15,723 houses built here in the past decade. Or this much of a bust: about 8,000 of Hernando's houses are empty; more than 10,000 properties have entered foreclosure since 2007.

Aren't the subdivisions along the parkway pretty close to full, and isn't this shaping up as a nice part of the county? Depends on whom you talk to and what statistics you look at.

Homestead exemptions are claimed on 342 of the 463 houses in Trillium, which means that most of the people living there own their homes — that there aren't too many vacant houses and rentals, that the neighborhood is pretty stable.

And close, said Robert and Nicole Marrero, both 27 and from New York, and who work out of county and commute on the parkway. Lots of their neighbors, like them, are raising young children. Everybody — kids and adults — spends a lot of time in one another's homes.

And considering that both of the Marreros have long commutes in different directions, access to the parkway makes Trillium pretty much ideal.

Then I caught up with a group of four teenagers fresh off the bus ride home from Hernando High School. They talked intelligently and at length about what it's like to live here — all of it summed up with the first thing out of the mouth of sophomore Kelly Savio.

"This place is boorrrring," she said.

Yep, that's what happens when populations are spread out. And that, in turn, is what happens when highways are built out, spokelike, from city centers.

There are bigger gaps between parks and schools. You don't get more and better dining and retail opportunities, just the same ones over and over. Witness the county's eighth Publix — flanked by a liquor store, a Chinese restaurant and a lot of empty storefronts — near Trillium's entrance on County Line Road.

And some of the other, less favorable, statistics I mentioned?

Houses have been built on fewer than half the lots in Avalon, and homestead exemptions claimed for fewer than half the houses in nearby Sterling Hill. Not that you needed more evidence, but yes, there is a glut of residential development in Hernando and, yes, the parkway contributed to it.

For commuters, access to jobs is what counts. For businesses, it is the proximity of Tampa International Airport, and the parkway has cut the trip there from the industrial park roughly in half, to less than 45 minutes.

"That took our county from outside the area of consideration and put it into the area of consideration," said Mike McHugh, the county's business development manager.

Combine this with some of the advantages of opening a business at the industrial park — cheap lease rates, lots of available land, access to the Hernando County Airport, rail and east-west highways — and you'd expect rapid growth once the parkway arrived.

By one measure, there has been. The number of jobs there has more than doubled, to 2,300.

By a couple of other measures, the growth hasn't been fast enough — an increase in the number of buildings leased from 62 to 95 and, worst of all, a county unemployment rate of 14.5 percent.

Nobody could have expected a boom in industry to match housing's. It didn't happen in most parts of the country and certainly not in Florida, McHugh said, which outsiders still tend to think of mostly as just a place to move for sunny weather.

And now we know there's only so much gold in that pot.

Hernando chased wrong pot of gold on parkway's rainbow 02/05/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 5, 2011 1:00pm]
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