Thursday, April 26, 2018
Opinion

Column: Making New Port Richey a better place to live

Rob Marlowe never left public service. Not really. He exited New Port Richey City Council last year after two terms to focus on his information technology business, but still found time to author a blog, serve on the citizens committee culling resumes of city manager wannabes, stay active in the CoteeMan Triathlon and roll up his shirtsleeves to yank out the decaying landscape and to trim the palm trees at the former U.S. Postal Service building owned by the city.

Let's see that's writer, researcher, administrator and gardener. So, it's not really surprising that Marlowe, who turns 60 later this month, is running for mayor of Pasco's largest city. Not being involved would contradict his nature.

"I'm a firm believer that everyone has a responsibility to make their community a better place while they're there,'' he said last week over coffee at the Market off Main.

The sense of responsibility is a personal quality he learned from his father. That would be the late James Marlowe, a physician, civic leader and 10-year member of the Pasco School Board for whom an elementary school in the city is named.

While the inspiration might be in Marlowe's DNA, the timing of his candidacy comes courtesy of the current mayor, Bob Consalvo, 72, who plans to join the city hall one-and-done club. Since 2000, five people have served as New Port Richey mayor and, counting Consalvo, four have left office after one term without seeking re-election. The candidate filing period begins in February and the nonpartisan election is scheduled for April, but it wouldn't be surprising to see Marlowe ascend to the mayor's position absent a campaign. He won a second three-year term on the council in 2010 without opposition.

Certainly, though, things have changed since Marlowe first ran for council in 2007. Then the real estate market was cooling, but not collapsing and the revenue implications of the voter-approved Amendment 1 property tax exemptions had yet to surface. Main Street Landing was an eyesore of cinder block, rebar and orange construction fencing, but redeveloping the former Hacienda Hotel property showed promise. Today, both sites offer more eye appeal, but neither is occupied and getting businesses/visitors/residents into the twin cornerstones of the city's community redevelopment remains a top priority to reinvigorate downtown.

Our conversation centered on the city's downtown, a topic I requested because it had been a year since the volunteer clean-ups at the Hacienda Hotel had renewed public enthusiasm for its redevelopment prospects. The energy has diminished, in part, because Pasco's Economic Development Council suggested the city find a new private-sector development partner and that takes time. It didn't help when one of the biggest cheerleaders for downtown, resident Craig Carmichael, 46, passed away in September.

Carmichael was full of ideas including an upscale restaurant at the Hacienda, city-owned boat docks along the Pithlachascotee River at Sims Park, a temporary dog park at the former First Baptist Church site and a business incubator at the old Post Office.

"He was a voice in my ear,'' Marlowe said, "with a lot of ideas. And, as hard as I tried, I had a hard time shooting holes in what he suggested.'' A variation of the business incubator may yet become reality and Marlowe wants to pursue the boat slips.

Ideas are coming from other sources, too. The city just reduced its reliance on the Pasco Economic Development Council and hired Mario Iezzoni as its own point person for economic development. "The most positive thing that has happened in the year since I left,'' Marlowe said.

There's been negatives, too. Marlowe shared a Facebook posting from Regan Weiss of Kentucky Avenue, the owner of a sports marketing firm and a member of the Greater New Port Richey Main Street. Weiss lamented the behavior at the recent Christmas parade including an intoxicated woman flashing for beads and the overall lack of vibrancy downtown.

"We need to raise the caliber of what we're doing downtown,'' agreed Marlowe who pointed to the Suncoast Arts Fest as an example of a missed opportunity. That art show began at Longleaf in 2005, but left west Pasco and now draws more than 95,000 visitors to a faux downtown at the Shops at Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel instead of to an authentic downtown in New Port Richey.

Of course, the outdoor mall has roughly 72 retail stores. Downtown New Port Richey has plenty of restaurants and professional offices, but a dearth of retail shops. It is a long-standing problem. Significant private sector investment to the downtown corridor remains unfulfilled 15 years after the city completed multimillion-dollar improvements to the downtown streetscape and to Sims Park.

Consider it just one of the many challenges awaiting the next mayor.

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