John Gallagher became Pasco County administrator when Ronald Reagan was president, Bob Graham was governor and Pasco was an afterthought in a Tampa Bay region dominated by Pinellas and Hillsborough interests. The county was the source of the area's drinking water supply and a punch line to ageist jokes because of the Northern retirees, lured by modest-priced housing, who motored along the rural county's antiquated network of two-lane roads. As Gallagher retires this week, Pasco is a far different place — and he deserves a large share of the credit.
Today, the roads are wider, the population is younger and Pasco is poised to be a significant player in the regional economy as home to two large-scale employment centers operated by financial services companies. The county is recognized as a leader in land-use planning that encourages urbanization and mass transit while maintaining rural characteristics elsewhere. Meanwhile, its amenities — parks, libraries, preserved green space, north-south highways — have helped elevate the quality of life that makes Pasco an attractive place to live and work.
The constant over the past three decades has been Gallagher, 65, who retires this week after 31 years serving as the appointed leader of county government. Gallagher grew up in New Port Richey and came to the county job in 1982 unaware of an ongoing criminal investigation. Five months later, a grand jury report gave him free rein to clean up the public-be-damned attitude that permeated Pasco's government and landed one commissioner behind bars. The centralized authority brought derisive comments about "King Gallagher,'' but the criticism waned as government efficiency improved.
He spent a quarter-century modernizing the county infrastructure and then he modernized his own top-down management style. He welcomed town hall meetings, strategic planning, employee input and shared decisionmaking. He had encouragement. A 2008 Urban Land Institute study of Pasco's business climate helped set the stage for changing the county government culture. It's gone from a hard-to-deal-with bureaucracy to one that now tries to guide growth and high-wage jobs into designated market areas, including the State Road 54/56 corridor along the county's southern tier. It is that area that will welcome the financial services companies scheduled to relocate to Pasco. Nearby, the Wiregrass Ranch area within Wesley Chapel is already booming with a new mall, hospital and soon-to-open community college campus.
Gallagher characterizes his career as guiding Pasco through its adolescence and preparing the county to bloom. Indeed. The county is on the cusp of what is expected to be significant and welcome change from a predominately bedroom community — more than 88,000 Pasco residents commute to work in other counties — to a place where more people can live, work and play in one location.
Gallagher is quick to share the accolades with his staff and with his past and current bosses. The Pasco County Commission is scheduled to meet today to pick Gallagher's successor, but not a replacement. The next county administrator may have strong managerial skills, but that person is not likely to match Gallagher's knowledge of the county or keep the job nearly as long.