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New Port Richey's Railroad Square shows forward thinking

Commercial progress in downtown New Port Richey is relying on a signal to stop.

That's okay, though. The stop signals — a pair of railroad gates, actually — are surrounded by aesthetically pleasing street lights, sidewalks, planters and decorative concrete in the street. It is the first phase of Railroad Square, a block-long facelift for Nebraska Avenue costing $457,000 in community redevelopment money.

This is stop as in, "Stop. Walk around. Enjoy the ambiance. Grab a bite to eat." As opposed to, "Stop the dawdling or we'll condemn your eyesore."

In the big picture, you wouldn't think a one-block renovation would matter so much. There is no historic depot or train track uniting the theme and the original idea of a caboose parked nearby failed to materialize. But, Railroad Square is indeed an imperative symbol for downtown New Port Richey at a time when most other locales in Florida are scrambling to keep their heads above water.

"This shows the business community that the city is interested in them," said City Manager Tom O'Neill.

"It's more and more rare that you see a public project completed and not stalled," echoed Mayor Scott McPherson.

Contrast those feel-good sentiments at Friday morning's ribbon-cutting with the grim financial picture shared the night before by Pasco Commissioner Michael Cox. Pasco County government could be looking at $30-million worth of spending cuts in the next budget.

Cutting library hours, charging new fees (to launch a boat, for example) and hiring and salary freezes are the realities of the current county budget. Additional property tax exemptions contained in voter-approved Amendment 1, declining property values attributed to the real estate crisis, and shrinking collections of taxes on sales and real estate transactions bring the potential for more severe cuts beginning in October and the likely delay of capital spending.

Additional county libraries or fire stations?

"It's not going to happen,'' Cox told the Pasco Alliance of Community Associations gathering in Land O'Lakes. "Those kinds of things are not going to happen.''

Indeed. Before Cox even spoke, the group encouraged its members to try to raise money to bolster libraries and schools because of looming budget cuts. The only short-term hope is what Cox characterized as the Obama dollars and the county's wish list of more than $1-billion worth of capital projects — roads and utilities mostly — that could benefit from a federal economic stimulus plan.

Which brings us back to New Port Richey. Railroad Square, though hardly a large-scale job creator nor a vital infrastructure need, also is intended to be an economic stimulus. The goal is to bring more foot traffic downtown and to showcase the city's heritage as a railroad town in the early 1920s. More importantly, the government-financed improvements could trigger private-sector investing in the corridor.

That started already when the popular Fitzgerald's restaurant and tavern replaced a former laundromat. And last year developer Bob Carroll acquired the long-vacant former municipal building on Main Street for $375,000 with an aim toward luring an eclectic, upscale restaurant capable of seating up to 200 patrons, half of whom would be outside.

The 70-year-old building on Main Street is just east of the intersection of Grand Boulevard. Carroll is about to finish the exterior on the front and rear of the east side to show potential tenants the possibilities. The interior already has been stripped to the bare brick to showcase the architecture.

So, why is one more restaurant important to downtown? The rear of the building faces Nebraska Avenue. This one-time city hall, firehouse and library is the central building in Railroad Square.

New libraries and fire stations might not be appearing anytime soon around Pasco County, but recycling the old one in the county's largest city will be a key part of an improved business environment in downtown New Port Richey.

New Port Richey's Railroad Square shows forward thinking 01/10/09 [Last modified: Sunday, January 11, 2009 9:41pm]

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