U.S. 19, Pasco County's busiest local road and certainly its most dangerous, is evolving into one of its most economically forlorn. As Times staff writer Jodie Tillman reported, the number of empty shops along west Pasco's commercial thoroughfare jumped nearly 150 percent over the past four years to 690,000 square feet of vacant retail space. That's a vacancy rate 50 percent higher than the rest of the region and significantly above the Pasco County average.
The extended recession contributed, but so, too, did changing demographics. The former retiree-dominated communities are now home to younger, working-class families. That brought a business phenomenon that gained widespread notoriety in 2002 when HCA announced it would move its Community Hospital beds from New Port Richey to a new hospital in Trinity. For-profit entities needed to be closer to the higher-income households emerging along the State Road 54 corridor.
For retailers, restaurants and the service sector, it's the same story. Target opened a superstore at the corner of SR 54 and Little Road and just closed its aging store at Scenic Drive and U.S. 19. Outback opened in Trinity and closed on U.S. 19.
Still, plenty of potential customers remain. In some spots, more than 65,000 vehicles pass by the aging strip centers on U.S. 19 each day. That's more traffic than on all other roads in the county, but one — Interstate 75. Attracting private-sector redevelopment and infill to U.S. 19 is the county's long-range goal, but, facing a constrained budget, it chose not to absorb the expense of a significant study to lay out a strategy and vision for reshaping the 20-mile retail corridor between Hernando and Pinellas counties.
County planners envision a so-called lifestyle mall — similar to a redeveloped mall in Winter Park — some day at the Gulf View Square site even though that mall's stores still do significant business. But even that optimistic outlook of a large-scale mixed-use project in a former regional mall is tempered by the income levels of the neighborhoods surrounding Gulf View. Winter Park's affluence drew such high-end tenants as Ann Taylor to its project, a retailer not likely to come to unincorporated Port Richey.
In that regard, redeveloping residential communities, allowing west Pasco's housing stock to age gracefully rather than falling into disrepair, is equally important. The amount of disposable income among area residents is tied directly to future commercial potential. Witness the market-driven redevelopment that brought low-cost grocer, Aldi, to begin two stores on U.S. 19. Likewise, two major U.S. 19 redevelopment projects of the last decade included Walmart superstores replacing eyesores in Port Richey and Bayonet Point.
The private-sector investment is welcome, but indicative of the area's less affluent population. It is preferable to the alternative: long-vacant buildings that draw vandals, diminish property values and reduce an area's aesthetic appeal.
Without a long-term strategy, piecemeal redevelopment will continue simply because of the area's density. But, the county would be wise to devise a vision for its westernmost corridor sooner rather than later to encourage greater private-sector investment in the county's urban core.