Pasco County wants to know its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
The exercise even has its own acronym: SWOT. Figuring out the pluses and minuses of Pasco County is intended to bolster economic development by exploiting the positives while trying to either repair or minimize the importance of the negatives.
Economic development, incidentally, also is assigned its own acronym on county documents – ED. Insert your own joke here.
Over the past two weeks consultants and county staff gathered input from the so-called stake-holders: Business groups, land owners, developers, chambers of commerce, farmers, utilities, manufacturers, real estate agents, educators and others. These were the first steps in a rewrite of the county's strategic plan on bringing more jobs to the county.
Let me qualify my observations by acknowledging I sat through just one of the six public meetings — the first of two sessions focusing on central Pasco. But, clearly a broad vision was lacking. Pedestrian and parochial concerns dominated. The same people who I suspect grumble about the cost of government want someone to hold their hand through the permitting process. Or they want the county to tell them which engineering firm to hire. Or they say Pasco County is hard to work with, but can't name a local government that is preferable.
Much of this has been addressed previously via the Urban Land Institute report that stood the county government on its ear two years ago and provoked a cultural change in how county the does business. In truth, these gripes date back two decades to the days of the Committee of 100 — the predecessor to today's Economic Development Committee — when that economic panel said Pasco needed a facilitator to help business through the government permitting process. The eventual choice to fill that role? The committee's own executive director who assumed the duties along with his regular job description.
These days the county assigns a senior planner to economic development. And when the big fish comes calling, the EDC, county administrator or his deputy, commissioners and others all are tuned in to help the recruitment and navigate the bureaucracy.
My own assessment of the county's strengths and weaknesses also breaks no new ground. Pasco is in a prime location because of north-south multi-lane highways, proximity to Tampa International Airport, the Port of Tampa and the nearby University of South Florida. Health care will continue to be a growth industry as attested to by the ongoing construction of new hospitals in Wesley Chapel and Trinity. And, Pasco, particularly the Wiregrass Ranch area of Wesley Chapel, is poised to benefit from the region's push toward better mass transit.
Pasco's weaknesses include the east-west transportation network. There is only one multi-laned road (State Road 54/56) connecting west Pasco to I-75 and no cross-county bus service. The Ridge Road Extension linking Moon Lake to central Pasco remains on the drawing board nearly 11 years after the county first applied for the permits to build it.
Meanwhile, the future labor pool is questionable with state and local educators having goals that are at odds. The Legislature is now mandating every high school student pass Algebra II in order to graduate while simultaneously the locals are pushing vocational training via the career academies. Do future chefs really need to apply logarithms in the kitchen?
The biggest threat, however, just might be more intangible — perception. If businesses believe the county government to be unhelpful then it matters little if the county has a senior planner for economic development ready to lend a hand. Her phone won't be ringing.
And it apparently matters little how many testimonials the successful businesses give on behalf of Pasco County. Just ask Michael Cox who made job creation the centerpiece of his failed re-election campaign to the county commission.
So Pasco needs to change that perception. Every region in Florida can tout quality of life attributes, sunshine and low taxes. Pasco is no different. The real opportunity presented to Pasco County is to tell everyone it's a good place to live and work.