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Ideas to boost Pasco's economy are few, far between

Sometimes the message you don't hear is the important one.

On Friday the 13th, several dozen people gathered at West Pasco Board of Realtors to kick around economic ideas. I figured the date was not an auspicious one and anticipated a discussion of impact fees, the one-time charges on new construction to help pay for demands on infrastructure.

Cutting or suspending the fees is an ill-advised idea. There is no data to suggest such a maneuver will spur new-home construction and, frankly, it simply puts local governments further behind state concurrency requirements. In other words, a pass now could translate into a future building moratorium if roads, schools and other essential services can't keep up when growth does return to Florida.

The suggestion of altering the county's impact fee of $20,000 per single-family home made it to a County Commission agenda earlier this year, but never was discussed. The staff yanked it for more research. Translation: They killed it, for the time being anyway. A resurrection apparently will not happen.

Instead, the gathering last week drew a state senator, county commissioners and high-level staffers, gubernatorial and congressional aides, elected city officials, real estate agents, bank representatives, developers, small-business owners and other interested parties.

There was an aide to U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, rationalizing ''no'' votes on the economic stimulus package even though it will bring improved health care to the needy in western Pasco County and perhaps a wider U.S. 41 through central Pasco.

I suspect the folks at Connerton — current residents and the corporate types looking at the empty lots in the largely undeveloped new town neighborhood — will be delighted at a multilane highway outside their entrance instead of the energy-wasting crawl of congestion.

Aide Shawn Foster managed to drop the names of former Presidents Carter and Clinton and the Community Reinvestment Act while searching for scapegoats to blame for the recession. Later, the bank industry became the punching bag.

Signs of times

How bad is the economy? State Sen. Mike Fasano might actually vote for a tax increase for the first time in his 15-year legislative career. There is little alternative when the state is again looking at a more than $1 billion shortfall in the current fiscal year, and revenue estimates from just three months ago are more than $2 billion lower than expected.

The politicking and grim financial news aside, the hoped-for ideas were in short supply. Business owner Mark Littlejohn of Holiday urged a rewrite of the county's sign ordinances to allow the flapping pennants, banners and flags that used to dominate the commercial landscape. His plea isn't likely to gain traction, even with updated sign regulation controls expected to be part of a rewrite of the county's land development code.

New Port Richey Council member and Main Street director Judy DeBella Thomas, among others, called for a buy-local campaign to keep commerce within Pasco County.

Trey Starkey, whose family developed Longleaf and will turn another portion of the family ranch into a new development near the apex of Gunn Highway and State Road 54, brought up the impact fees. He suggested they put Pasco builders at a competitive disadvantage with neighboring counties, but to his credit, he declined to endorse a cut or moratorium. "It's not that simple to chop them,'' he said.

It's a commendable outlook from a developer not guided by self-interest.

Others urged increased political activism. Port Richey Mayor Richard Rober called for more meetings. Just don't include him (Honest.).

Alternative idea

With the impact fee cut apparently deflated, let's consider another more substantial alternative to stimulating the local economy. This idea, too, did not surface at the summit.

More than three years ago, economist William Fruth suggested Pasco County consider developing its own industrial park as a step to curb the live-here, work-there society that sees 85,000 Pasco residents commute to jobs outside the county. The projected cost of up to $17 million for a 200-acre industrial site and the notion of competing against the private sector doomed the idea.

In today's economy, however, the private sector can't obtain financing to do such speculative building. Local governments, meanwhile, are cutting their budgets because of falling property values, increased tax exemptions and shrinking sales and gasoline tax receipts.

So, is the concept as dead as an impact fee cut? Not quite.

One opportunity does exist for spec building — Main Street Landing in downtown New Port Richey. A public-private collaboration to finish the exterior of the stalled project creates immediate construction work and a joint incentive program could spur renewed retailing in an area starved for such activity. Consider it a way to increase the downtown locations where customers could shop locally.

Just an idea.

Ideas to boost Pasco's economy are few, far between 03/16/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 16, 2009 5:27pm]

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