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Give commuters a reason to stay

Pasco's Economic Development Council wisely is continuing its push to turn commuters into hometown employees.

The EDC, the public-private partnership charged with bringing more and better jobs to the county, is seeking a change in the county's comprehensive land-use plan to add a business park designation.

If successful, it will allow land to be set aside for light industry or offices exclusively. Residences would be prohibited and retail would be limited to ancillary businesses serving the employees who would work at the park.

It is the same maneuver used last year when the EDC targeted a pair of sites for light industrial use. The state still is reviewing those comp plan amendments aimed at turning 93 acres owned by the Starkey family and 233 acres owned by the Grossenbacher family, north of the One Pasco Center industrial park near Interstate 75, into potential industrial parks.

This time around the EDC is not identifying specific parcels. At least not yet. It wants the county to look at about 10 locations that could be suitable as office park designees. The sites ideally will be 50 to 200 acres with easy access to transportation and be near business nodes, said Mary Jane Stanley, EDC director.

It is an easy-to-understand strategy. Economic recruiters want to avoid repeating the demise of a planned high-profile commerce park, the Saddlebrook Corporate Center in Wesley Chapel at State Road 54 and I-75. The owners gave up on attracting industry and sold the vacant land that has since been turned into a residential neighborhood. The county gained more higher value homes, but lost nearly 440 acres of prime real estate for industrial recruitment.

"The most important thing is that all our prime pieces of property don't become residential," Stanley said Thursday.

Here's why: Pasco's job base has grown, but the quality of employment opportunities has not. Low-wage service jobs dominate, so 60,000 people, or 45 percent of Pasco County's work force, leave each day to work in Hillsborough, Pinellas or Hernando counties, according to the U.S. Census. Pasco sends a larger percentage of its workers to other counties than any other Tampa Bay area county.

Economic consultant Bill Fruth, speaking Thursday afternoon during a Business Development Week luncheon, suggested recruiters could use that to their advantage. Lobby new commerce to intercept the labor pool by locating right in the middle of the commuting path, he said.

Regardless of its exact location within Pasco County, the need to grow the local industrial tax base is imperative because it will help curb the long-term strain on government revenues from traditional residential growth.

Or, as Fruth put it, a strong diversified economy will finance the strong quality of life everyone desires.

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