John Gallagher says he's been waiting for this moment for years.
No, not retirement.
The Pasco County administrator is nearing his 63rd birthday and the anniversary of his 28th year guiding county government. With a new two-year contract and an option for two additional years, it's a safe bet he will mark three decades in an appointed position that is so volatile elsewhere our neighbors to the north in Hernando County went through 10 administrators — counting interims — in 10 years.
The Pasco County that excites Gallagher now is the State Road 54/56 corridor, dubbed the gateway area, along the county's southern tier. T. Rowe Price has purchased land and promised up to 1,600 jobs. The year-old Shops at Wiregrass is a sparkling retail center in Wesley Chapel that is luring moneyed customers from New Tampa and points south. Meanwhile, federal environmental regulators have blessed turning the cleared land at Interstate 75 and SR 56 into the Cypress Creek mall.
"I've been waiting for this cusp,'' said Gallagher, "waiting for years for economic development to happen in this county.''
Indeed. A perennial bridesmaid, Pasco finished runner-up or out of the running after chasing multiple large-scale economic opportunities in the Gallagher era including a spring training baseball home for the New York Yankees, a Wal-Mart distribution center and defense contractor Group Technologies. Meanwhile, developers announced plans for regional outlet malls at the I-75 interchanges with SR 54 and SR 52, neither of which materialized.
Take a look at Pasco right now. The jobless rate is above 13 percent. The western county is in need of redevelopment amid a demographic shift that saw blue-collar workers replace retirees. Tens of thousands of Pasco residents crowd roads each day for employment in other locales. And, government faces a revenue squeeze. Still, Gallagher says he is optimistic.
Actually, during a wide-ranging, two-hour interview he volunteered that he is "extremely optimistic about where the county is going.''
The T. Rowe Price campus and new large-scale retailing on the horizon translate to a property tax base that will extend beyond an over reliance on residential communities to help pay the bills. It's an imperative point. The county has money in the bank for the one-time expense of building things, but lacks the resources for the perpetual operating expenses. It's why the commission is so gung-ho about partnering with the private sector on a sports-tourism project and pushing the operating expenses out of the public purse.
But, the same constraints on the bottom line helped force the county to change the way it does business. Fewer people have meant reduced services to the public — shorter library and recreation center operating hours, for instance — and new fees. Setting new priorities, or setting a new way to establish priorities became mandatory.
"You just can't operate in a vacuum anymore,'' Gallagher said.
Gone are the days of dropping canned remarks on the commission as the staff unveiled a proposed budget in a quickie evening meeting the second Tuesday of each July. An engaged community wants input on the front end to help guide the commission's spending decisions. Would-be pols looking to bolster name-recognition and seniors angry about their property tax notices are no longer the exclusive audience at budget hearings. Last year, special interests including veterans, agricultural enthusiasts and non-profit agencies lobbied to try to limit their share of a budget reduction.
The economy and the philosophical change — driven in part by consultants trying to help the county change its culture — turned community group meetings, surveys and focus groups into the norm. It's the kind of stuff Gallagher probably would have found too warm and fuzzy in years gone by. Then he realized a too-strong, top-down management style works with neither his staff nor the public. The community meetings will continue each year, he said, otherwise the county diminishes its public credibility.
Gallagher still envisions a county dotted by town centers and pedestrian-friendly communities instead of repeating the disconnected gated subdivisions. He believes the long-delayed environmental permit for the Ridge Road Extension will be obtained and traffic will be using it in a couple of years, providing a key addition to the east-west road network.
Those are two tangible illustrations of what he identified as a final goal.
"I know this is corny,'' he said, "but I want to leave the place better than when I got there.''