Hillsborough leaders are about to shape the county for decades to come, whether they want to or not. Commissioners will discuss this month how actively to craft a 2050 plan — essentially a road map for how the county should grow and partner with the Tampa Bay region. Commissioners can do one of two things: Dismiss the effort as an exercise in moving game pieces around, or seize the chance to put big things on the table —everything from rail, jobs, education and the arts to new models for downtown and suburban living.
This commission is not a board of big ideas, and already some members want to put the planning off until the economy recovers. That would be a mistake. The region's population is expected to double, to 7-million, by 2050. The suburban sprawl that came online during the housing boom this decade will have begun to experience the problems that age has wrought on other former bedroom communities, from traffic congestion and crime to the physical decline of offices, shops and public works.
Waiting for these problems to explode makes no sense. This slow economy is the perfect time to step back and examine the range of policies that shape Hillsborough's growth patterns. Could rail, for example, make suburban living more sustainable by reducing the need for ever-expansive roads? According to the Census Bureau, more Americans are driving alone to work, and drive times for the longest commutes are getting longer. With gas prices rising, and no end in sight, communities that curb consumption can strengthen their local economies. And better land management helps counties like Hillsborough protect urban and rural lifestyles alike.
It would be enough to hear what vision each commissioner has for the future. The seven have a combined experience of 36 years on the board and 46 years in elected office — or roughly, the amount of time from now to 2050. They are good at jumping on small things, like cameras at red lights and strip clubs. But none of them, aside from Mark Sharpe, talk in concrete terms about growing the economy or using the arts or the environment to raise the county's profile. That lack of leadership is why voters are being asked on the ballot this year to create a county mayor.
Great communities did not get there by accident. Planning may seem amorphous. But it takes time and money to build the backbone of what makes a region special. Commissioners Al Higginbotham and Rose Ferlita get it, too. But the board majority and the county staff need to get clearly behind a 2050 plan.
Hillsborough is the region's biggest player, and it needs something to bring to the table.