Thursday, April 19, 2018
Editorials

Bleak economic outlook for Pasco requires aggressive response

Pasco County's bleak economy has hit bottom and now should grow in size for the next dozen years even if public and private-sector industrial recruiters take a hands-off approach through 2025.

Doing nothing, however, is not an acceptable alternative because the Pasco economy, while growing in size, would decline in quality. It would mean more of the same — low-wage service and retail jobs dominating the employment picture and causing the average salaries in Pasco to fall even further behind the national norm. People employed in Pasco earn an average of about $36,000 annually, just two-thirds of the national average.

The outlook was presented Friday afternoon by economist Bill Fruth at the concluding event of Pasco's business development week. His forecast dovetails with an economic strategy county staffers are devising to be more aggressive in trying to attract and retain high-wage jobs to curb the live-here, work-there bedroom community. More than 88,000 Pasco residents commute to other counties each day for employment.

The aggressive approach includes a remarkable goal of landing more than 37,000 private-sector jobs paying an average of $96,500 by 2025. That is unrealistic considering past performance. Over the previous 20 years, Pasco County's primary private-sector jobs grew by less than 3,500.

But, T. Rowe Price and Raymond James Financial have both announced plans to set up shop here and the county is now well positioned to market itself to like-minded businesses. More significant to the health of the regional economy, Fruth said, Pasco must capture industries that have outgrown obsolete work space in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. Failing to do that will harm the employment picture for all of Tampa Bay if those businesses decide to abandon their current workforce and relocate outside the region.

Toward that end, Fruth repeated a pitch he's told Pasco government and business leaders in the past: Their top priority must be availability of industrially-zoned real estate that can be flipped quickly to businesses anxious to relocate. There has been past political reluctance and a sparsity of available equity to pursue such an idea in the past.

The renewal of the Penny for Pasco sales tax now provides the county with $4.5 million annually, beginning in 2015, to consider investing in a public industrial park. The private sector isn't waiting. Compark 75 in Wesley Chapel announced plans for a $15 million investment including 130,000 square feet of industrial space. Such industrial spec space — built on speculation without tenants — hasn't existed in Pasco for the past five years.

Whether the county follows suit or partners with the private sector to devise an industrial site reserved exclusively for primary industries paying above-average wages is an idea that should be considered. Pasco officials have lamented missed opportunities in the past when prospects were lured to available industrial sites at the county-government owned airport and commerce park in Hernando County.

Lamenting is ineffective as an industrial recruiting tool. It's time to abandon the do-nothing approach entirely to ensure a brighter future for both the county and the region's economy.

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