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Development boom hints at county's future growth

On Nov. 23, the giant countdown clock began ticking toward the fall 2007 opening of Cypress Creek Town Center.

It took three years to reach this point, but last month Pasco County commissioners approved the super mall, destined to rise from a pasture at Interstate 75 and State Road 56.

It will be only the county's second mall after Gulf View Square mall and one of the biggest in west Florida.

Cypress Creek Town Center set the tone for 2004: It was a big, brash year of superlatives for Pasco development.

It was a year when Wal-Mart poured forth plans for four new supercenters, one each in Land O'Lakes, Holiday, Hudson and Wesley Chapel.

Not to be left behind, rival retailer Target Corp. knocked out proposals for its own super stores, one in Odessa, the other in Land O'Lakes.

It was a year when auto dealers took the measure of Wesley Chapel and agreed the Tampa bedroom community was a fabulous place to sell Hondas, Toyotas, Chevys and Hyundais.

Last but hardly least, it was another record-breaking year for new home construction, particularly on the broad corridor of State Road 54 from Morris Bridge to Little roads.

By November, Pasco had already sprinted past last year's single-family home total of 5,883. The county's home permit totals for 2004 could approach 7,000.

Super-low mortgage interest rates have revved the housing market. So has the strong job growth in the Tampa Bay area and the desire of families to flee the grit of Tampa for the grass of Pasco.

As many buyers have learned to their chagrin, houses aren't the bargains they used to be. Neighborhoods that in 2003 were selling three-bedroom homes "from the 120s" by late 2004 raised prices to "from the 160s."

The average price of a new single-family home in Pasco has reached $220,000. This in a county where a new home averaged $150,000 just three years ago.

The furious demand combined with a diminishing supply created a dearth of lots by year's end. Home builders took to rationing lots, and house hunters grew frustrated.

Builders said contractors and suppliers couldn't keep up. An equally likely explanation: Sales people didn't want to dump lots too cheaply with price increases right around the corner.

Zeroing in on the masses of free-spending suburbanites were reams of new retailers.

Cypress Creek Town Center led the pack. Though still about three years away from realization, drawings show an open-air mall with two anchor department stores and a cinema.

Matching Cypress Creek for aggressiveness, Wal-Mart, Target, Publix and Starbucks launched plans to open stores every few miles across suburban Pasco.

Wal-Mart continued to wrestle with county officials over its plans to build a supercenter near Beacon Woods on U.S. 19. Neighbors fear traffic will clog their roads.

The world's biggest retailer pitched another superstore at Grand Boulevard and SR 54 in Holiday. It was Wal-Mart's second attempt. Neighbors' complaints doomed plans in 2003 to put a store at U.S. 19 and Gulf Trace Boulevard.

Sam's Club, Wal-Mart's chain of buy-it-in-bulk warehouse stores, is building its first central Pasco outlet at State Road 56 and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. It could open in the spring.

Near the same intersection, mall retailer J.C. Penney will build its first standalone store in the Tampa Bay area. Home Depot planted its orange logo this year at Eiland Boulevard and SR 54.

The biggest change in the retail landscape promises to be the auto dealerships eager to occupy Wesley Chapel in 2005.

Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Mazda and Nissan have all nabbed lots on SR 54 near I-75. Buddy Foster Chevrolet plans to move from Zephyrhills to property the dealership bought at SR 56 east of I-75.

Ferman Automotive will open a bit farther west on SR 54 in Land O'Lakes. Its combination Buick, Pontiac and GMC dealership reserved 12 acres fronting the Oak Grove neighborhood.

The year 2004 also heralded the grand opening of one of Pasco's largest projects for years to come: Connerton New Town Development southeast of State Road 52 and U.S. 41.

Planned as 8,700 homes built around an urban core of stores, restaurants and offices, Connerton uncorked a 30-second holiday ad announcing its first home sales next spring.

Two other massive projects built on ranches, Wiregrass Ranch in Wesley Chapel and Bexley Ranch in Land O'Lakes, should get green lights in 2005.

With Pasco bracing for so much construction, it's unlikely the building records set in 2004 will stand forever.