There is much redevelopment work to be done in New Port Richey, but expanding the payroll shouldn't be a part of it.
Consider the work ahead: The centerpiece of private sector investment, the mixed-use Main Street Landing project, will not be completed without city assistance, its developer states. The historic Hacienda Hotel cannot expand unless it moves westward, right into the popular community-built playground in Sims Park. The hoped-for Orange Lake Landings is nothing more than an empty lot where a church once stood, and the city is bracing for the departure of its largest taxpayer and private employer, HCA, which, in November, is relocating most of its operations from Community Hospital to a new medical center in Trinity. Meanwhile, the stalled activity downtown has the city refocusing on less-costly initiatives to improve residential neighborhoods.
With such a long to-do list, it is understandable that City Manager John Schneiger wants to hire a full-time economic development manager. Understandable, but not feasible. The city simply has more pressing demands.
Its $2.2 million redevelopment fund, financed by taxes generated from higher property values, "is essentially broke,'' Schneiger has said, as the city pays off loans for its rebuilt recreation/aquatic center and for acquiring the Hacienda and Orange Lake/First Baptist Church sites that have yet to be redeveloped. By Oct. 1, 2012, the city's general fund will be subsidizing the Community Redevelopment Agency, and difficult budget decisions will await, as 16 city employees — police officers and code enforcement and development services personnel — are on the CRA budget. It is an inopportune time to be adding to the payroll in the name of business development.
It also is counterproductive to try to lure new businesses downtown at the same time the council is debating changing its appropriations for the community festivals and special events that bring people downtown.
Recruiting new businesses to empty storefronts won't be as simple as a downtown tour and a promise to expedite the permitting process. While the city has desirable riverfront housing, its overall demographics include a bountiful supply of modest rental housing attracting moderate-income transients. That works against the city as retailers and other business interests (HCA, for instance) seek to locate closer to a larger pool of higher-income earners. Reversing that trend probably will take the successful completion of high-profile downtown projects to draw visitors to the Hacienda and new residents to the proposed downtown housing. Completion of just one of the projects will demonstrate to other businesses the value of investing in downtown New Port Richey.
In the meantime, to bolster economic recruitment, perhaps New Port Richey can borrow a page from Zephyrhills. That city now wants to assemble its own development task force to revise incentives and work to attract smaller, lower-profile businesses to the city. It's the type of community-based initiative that smaller cities are going to have to rely upon. This prolonged era of shrinking property tax rolls and reduced resources makes business recruiters a hard-to-afford luxury.