Business partners Tanya Rubin and Matt Walsh spent six months searching the Tampa Bay area, looking for just the right spot for the ice cream store they dreamed about opening.
They ended up in a little shop on a big road with a whole lot of potential.
"Everybody kept saying to us, "Carrollwood, Northdale, Northdale, Carrollwood,'
" Rubin said, referring to the north Tampa communities. "So we ended up on North Dale Mabry (Highway). We just felt that finally the growth had caught up with that area."
Caught up it has _ and with a vengeance.
Development has been creeping north up Dale Mabry Highway from Tampa for decades. Shopping centers and residential communities line the busy strip of asphalt from its beginning at MacDill Air Force Base almost nonstop for 16 miles to Ehrlich Road.
Now, with the cross-county Veterans Expressway toll road being built, plans for new shopping malls and subdivisions and Pasco County pushing south, the last and northernmost stretch of Dale Mabry is facing a veritable growth explosion.
"Think about it this way," said Peter Geraci, whose family owns land off Dale Mabry where a 194-acre shopping mall and a 1,400-unit golf course subdivision are proposed.
"You've got Dale Mabry running six lanes north and south, and the Veterans Expressway running six lanes east and west," Geraci said.
"At some point, that area is going to be developed."
The key word
In the stretch of Hillsborough County north of Ehrlich Road, between Gunn Highway and Interstate 275, the population is expected to jump by more than 60 percent over the next two decades.
That would make the area _ encompassing some 40 square miles or so _ one of the fastest-growing spots in the Tampa Bay area. About 82,300 people are expected to live there by the year 2015, according to the latest county projections. That would make the area almost twice as populous as the city of Pinellas Park.
"That North Dale Mabry area has been attractive to buyers over the last few years because it's an established location with good schools, shopping and a much-improved transportation system," said Randy Warner, whose research company American Metro/Study tracks local housing trends. "With any new development with affordable lots in northwest Hillsborough, you're going to have very strong potential."
The projected growth is a big reason why the state is investing $322-million to build the Veterans Expressway. When complete, the toll road will run 15 miles from N Dale Mabry to the Courtney Campbell Parkway. By substantially cutting travel time to Tampa's West Shore area and to Pinellas County, the expressway is expected to solidify northwest Hillsborough's identity as a bedroom community.
Growth also is a big reason why retailers and others see the N Dale Mabry area _ already home to some of Hillsborough's more prosperous consumers _ as an ideal new market.
"I think it's just been a recognition (on the part of retailers) of the Carrollwood lifestyle," said Lois Kostroski, administrative manager for the 250-member Carrollwood Area Business Association. "Somebody finally figured out that (local residents) go out more, shop more, dine out more."
A directory of new restaurants and stores that have popped up in recent months along N Dale Mabry might read something like the latest shopping guide for today's trendy.
At least three gourmet chicken restaurants have opened within a few miles of each other in recent months. There's a new Colorado's steak house, a new Sweet Tomatoes salad restaurant and microbrewery Hops Grill & Bar.
Just down the road, there's Basquettes, a designer basket store and gift shop, and, just south of Ehrlich Road, there's Originals in Glass, a stained glass store where customers can make their own designs.
For the more frugal, a Sam's Club warehouse just opened, and next to it, business at Home Depot is booming. And for those with children, two new indoor playgrounds _ Discovery Zone and Kids Fun _ opened this month.
"The key word is "explosion,'
" said Robert Bok, who with his wife, Diane, picked the Northdale Court shopping center north of Ehrlich Road for the first of several Kids Fun locations they are planning. "There's just been a growth explosion around here.
"We looked at the whole tri-county area _ Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough _ and this area quickly became our primary place. It's where the growth is taking place now, and where it has been taking place.
"Everything is moving north."
"end of innocence'
David Bortness, who lives in the unincorporated area stretching across N Dale Mabry called Lutz, knows that is all too true.
And he doesn't like it a bit.
"I don't think there has really been anytime in the past when the Lutz community has ever been under such a deluge of new development," said Bortness, a 46-year-old computer consultant who also is president of the Lutz Civic Association.
Bortness' group is fighting the plans of developer Advance Leasing of Port Richey for a 1.3-million square-foot mall on the Geracis' land at Dale Mabry and Van Dyke Road.
It's also planning to lobby against a rezoning of another 865 acres the Geracis own near Dale Mabry and Lutz-Lake Fern Road, which the family wants to sell to developers for the giant subdivision they are calling Lake Ruth Ranch. Nearly 600 single-family houses, 900 apartment units and a golf course will be built at Lake Ruth Ranch if Hillsborough County approves the project.
If the mall and the subdivision are built, Bortness thinks "the concept of Lutz as we know it now is dead."
Bortness bought his lakefront home in rural Lutz about 25 years ago to escape busy Tampa. Now, he thinks, the same commercialization he tried to get away from is catching up with him.
"I like to call it the end of the innocence," he said.
Peter Geraci calls it hogwash.
Geraci's family has lived in Tampa or Lutz since the turn of the century, accumulating about 2,700 acres around Lutz and N Dale Mabry during that time. Geraci's home is on a few hundred acres next to the mall site. So is his mother's. He is planning eventually to build a home there for his daughter.
"The Lutz Civic Association has accused the Geracis of trying to butcher out some kind of rank development and leave," Geraci, 39, said. "That's not going to happen. My family was there before their families even got into Florida, much less Lutz. And we'll probably be here longer."
Geraci, like others, thinks development is inevitable along N Dale Mabry _ especially given the history of development along the rest of the road to the south.
He isn't alone in his thinking.
"I can't see where that area is going to go anywhere but up," said Warren Kinsler, vice president of Cypress Meadow Homes.
In its first foray in the Tampa Bay area, Kinsler's company is building the 40-acre Cypress Meadows subdivision on N Dale Mabry about a mile south of Van Dyke Road. More than 100 homes are planned for the subdivision. Kinsler's company, a subsidiary of New Jersey's Garden Homes, owns another 35 acres just north of Cypress Meadows, where more development could occur.
Hillsborough County's growth management plan seems to support the idea that growth along the last undeveloped stretch of Dale Mabry is inevitable.
The county has designated the land south and east of the Dale Mabry-Veterans Expressway intersection for commercial development, the growth plan shows. In some spots north of the intersection, residential development as dense as four units per acre can be built. South of the intersection, there are spots where residential development as dense as 12 units per acre can be built.
Pasco County also has earmarked most of the undeveloped land in its small stretch of N Dale Mabry for residential development.
The residential designations, along with Hillsborough County's so-called "scenic corridor" plan for the road, are designed to keep non-stop commercial development from occurring along the northern end of the highway.
But even planners concede that if and when the mall is built, and when the expressway is complete, pressure for more development may be heavy.
"Certainly if the mall is built there will be more urban development," said Ray Chiaramonte, director of comprehensive planning and urban design for the city-county Planning Commission in Hillsborough County. "I think the Veterans Expressway might create some more pressure. And certainly there's a lot of infill land (that can be developed) to the north of that."
Kinsler, the Cypress Meadows developer, explains it a little less technically.
"Ehrlich Road and Dale Mabry was sort of the stopping point for development not too long ago," he said. "Once a few shopping centers were built there, the growth continued north.
"We're just the next wave of development."
A hot spot for growth
Retailers already see the nothern stretch of Dale Mabry Highway as a place to test new ideas, and with the impending arrival of the Veterans Expressway and plans for a new shoppong mall, the area is expected to boom.