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West Pasco County faces demographic changes, economic challenges

The commerce in west Pasco isn't confined to retail stores, office buildings or aging strip centers.

A little before 12:30 Thursday afternoon, a woman in a brown skirt and print blouse walked along the east shoulder of U.S. 19 between Ranch Road and State Road 52. Her back to the traffic, she ambled in the same direction as the northbound motorists. With a cigarette sticking out of her mouth, she turned her head as vehicles passed by, trying to make eye contact with any interested driver.

She was peddling her wares, but only to customers named John.

It is a widely recognized dilemma of urbanized west Pasco. By all accounts, there are more women willing to walk the streets, trying to sell themselves in order to put food on the table or intoxicants into their central nervous systems. A Sheriff's Office sting resulted in the arrests of eight women on prostitution charges last week, but there are no real changes in behavior, as indicated by the woman working the lunch crowd.

The streetwalkers, the homeless and the occasional gang activity are the highly visible signs of a troubled sliver of society that wasn't much of a concern in pre-21st century Pasco County. But a portion of west Pasco's population continues to transition from retirees to younger, blue-collar workers with families, and it now includes a segment of the unemployed fearful of losing their homes and those already out on the street.

Granted, the woman in the brown skirt is an extreme example, but the evolving demographics pose issues to Pasco County not only in terms of law enforcement, education and social programs, but also in economic and land-use planning. As Pasco continues to devise a long-term vision for its most heavily populated area, it must answer a key question: How do you make the west side of the county more attractive to private investors/redevelopment enthusiasts when the core population (future customer base) has a moderate income, at best?

More than a decade ago, the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce advocated that the county and the cities of Port Richey and New Port Richey spend a combined $610,000 to landscape the medians on U.S. 19, saying the highway's ugliness was detrimental to business development.

Nobody disputes the road's lack of aesthetic qualities, but the middle of the road wasn't the place to start. Even with safety features now underway — median channels and eventually a continuous right-hand turn lane — U.S. 19 still could use more sidewalks, fewer commercial signs, and shelters for its bus stops. Letter writers to this newspaper aren't shy about pointing out other shortcomings — speeding, red-light runners and litterbugs.

More to the point is the work being drafted by Pasco County's growth management staff that correctly identifies west Pasco in general and U.S. 19 in particular as in need of a face-lift. Actually, reconstructive surgery would be more accurate.

There are visions for a waterfront district at the Pithlachascotee River, better access to the unspoiled beauty of the Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park, ecotourism tied to the Anclote River, mass transit, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly areas, significant redevelopment of aging/empty commercial buildings and even a so-called lifestyle center of housing, public space and commercial ventures at Gulf View Square mall.

The county dubs the area from the coast to Little Road as its west market area, but clearly the U.S. 19 spine is the most visible and in need of the most attention. As the county rolled out its plans at a series of community workshops in the spring, the public's priorities changed according to geography. People in the northern end of the corridor put a greater emphasis on preservation, both environmental and historic. Those at the southern end of the corridor said the need for quality jobs topped all other worries.

That is imperative. It is easier to envision investors bankrolling urban designs, a more desirable housing stock, stores you can walk to instead of driving to and a San Antonio-like river walk in New Port Richey and Port Richey if people have greater levels of income.

The illicit commerce along U.S. 19 notwithstanding, the challenge of turning artist renderings into active redevelopment means luring the interested passersby with money to spend.

West Pasco County faces demographic changes, economic challenges 10/15/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 15, 2011 1:00pm]
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