Bulldozers scraped the palmettos and pines west of U.S. 19 and a steady convoy of trucks brought in load after load of fill dirt and concrete. Most people in the greater New Port Richey area buzzed about the new mall that would transform the area and improve the quality of life.
But not everyone. A woman with hip length, jet black hair who lived on a limerock road just west of the construction placed her body in front of the machines and refused to move. They had crushed too many animals, stirred up dust and polluted Salt Springs. It had to stop.
My boss sent me out to cover the protest. It made a good story. Police threatened the woman but didn't take her to jail. And her efforts actually persuaded the developer to take greater care.
That was 1978, two years before the first shoppers swung open the double doors at the Gulf View Square mall. In the time since, the mall has provided a valuable source of commerce, jobs and social gatherings, a place where schoolkids can perform, old folks can work on their cardiac fitness and children can visit with Santa Claus. The mall brought with it several nice stores and restaurants and gave local shoppers an alternative to driving an hour south to a mall.
When Gulf View Square opened, you would be hard-pressed to find anybody who could direct you to Wesley Chapel. It was mainly pasture land and swamp, some 30 miles east of the coast, where all the people were settling during Pasco's first great housing boom.
Not anymore. Wesley Chapel is today's boomtown. Stay away for a month and when you return, there's a new road, a new Starbucks, a new mall. The Shops at Wiregrass opened last week. It is an open-air mall that bears no resemblance to the covered mini-towns like Gulf View.
Friday afternoon, a day after its official opening, I paid a visit to the new mall. My impression: What recession? Deputies directed the nonstop flow of traffic as shoppers and the curious flocked to what was just a short time ago a cow pasture.
I must tell you, it's nice. Worth the drive, even if you're not a shopper. Of course Friday was a blue sky, low humidity, perfect October Florida day. Merchants opened their doors, and if you sat in one of the many wooden chairs along the boulevard, you could smell new everything: leather, books, paint, mixed with coffee and perfumes. You could let the sun wash down on your face, close your eyes and listen to the Dave Matthews Band and other lively, clear music roll out of the Bose speakers buried in the ground next to flowers and palms.
It reminded me more of Disney World than a shopping plaza in Pasco County, of all places. Everything was so clean — no cigarette butts or oil stains. You can see why, for the first time ever, we now have a magnet to draw the city folks north.
I ate lunch at a Cosi. The line was long and cheerful employees treated us to hot bread as we waited to order. I sat next to a large window perfect for people-watching, especially on Halloween. Raggedy Ann pushed a carriage with her little pumpkins inside. Sarah Palin tossed an Express bag over her shoulder. A woman in rabbit ears bought a book at Barnes & Noble.
The folks who planned this place are smart. I mean, a Barnes & Noble? I can spend hours browsing and listening to music while my girls spend hours in the clothing stores. And at the Brass Tap, I can sit outside and sample some exotic brews and watch a ballgame on a flat screen TV. Now that's what I call shopping.
Unfortunately when you leave Wiregrass, you're jolted back into reality, the same kind that waits for you outside Gulf View — a highway from hell. Bruce B, Downs Boulevard is central Pasco's U.S. 19. The malls show how far we've come in three decades; the highways show how much we've failed.