Pasco's SR 54 corridor poised for takeoff

Wesley Chapel got its first acute care hospital in October when Florida Hospital built an 83-bed medical center.
Wesley Chapel got its first acute care hospital in October when Florida Hospital built an 83-bed medical center.
Published Dec. 28, 2012


It has been described as Pasco's future Westshore.

Last year, county planners designated State Road 54/56, the east-west artery that runs through the southern sector of the county's high density market area, ripe for urban-style development such as offices, stores, hotels and hospitals.

In 2012, it came. And, say those in development circles, fasten your seat belts as the area becomes a key player in the Tampa Bay region's business centers.

"If you look at it from a regional standpoint, that corridor has the potential for some pretty impressive development," said Michael Cox, a former county commissioner and employee with Wells Fargo, which is building a new office on SR 54 near Trinity. "It'll be like having another Kennedy Boulevard in south Tampa or Bruce B. Downs Boulevard in the New Tampa area."

Here's what's happened this year:

• Medical Center of Trinity, an expanded reboot of Community Hospital, moved in February from its 1970s New Port Richey facility to a 236-bed hospital on SR 54 just east of Little Road. Wesley Chapel also got its first acute care hospital in October when Florida Hospital built an 83-bed medical center that is expected to expand to more than 200 beds.

• In May, financial firm Raymond James announced plans to buy land off State Road 56 for a two-tower satellite campus that would create about 750 jobs.

• In late August, developers broke ground on a 21,500-square-foot office building just east of Duck Slough Boulevard. Joel Traub said he nearly doubled the size of the project because changes in the county's land use rules and new mobility fee program saves him roughly $200,000. Its anchor tenant, Wells Fargo Advisors, will occupy about 8,100 square feet. Because of the proximity to the new Trinity hospital, Traub lined up one medical practice and was in talks with others. The building is slated to open in May.

• Construction began on Pasco-Hernando Community College's Porter campus in Wesley Chapel, a $45.9 million expansion of the college, with six buildings and 633 parking spaces for 1,200 students and about 35 staffers. Though rain caused some delays in 2012, it's still set to open on schedule in 2014.

Many of the announcements and ground breakings came after the county changed the way it requires new development to help pay for roads. The new mobility fee plan eliminated transportation charges for office, industrial and hotel projects in urban areas of the county, which are generally along the coast and the southern border. The plan also includes lower fees for homes built in those areas, with higher fees in rural north Pasco. The idea is to discourage sprawl by encouraging more dense development in urban areas.

To accommodate all the traffic along SR 54 expected to be caused by that growth, county commissioners agreed to begin a projected six- to eight-month study of adding so-called managed lanes of traffic including variable tolls and potentially elevated highways to connect the Suncoast Parkway and Interstate 75.

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"That could be a real game changer," said Trey Starkey, a member of the pioneer family that developed the Longleaf neighborhood east of Little Road and is involved in developing the rest of the family cattle ranch. Starkey, who used to ride his bicycle down the SR 54 when it was two lanes, said he had doubts at first about the elevated expressway idea but now feels like it's the way to go.

"Every time Richard (Gehring) passes the Kool-Aid around, I buy a little more of it," said Starkey, who also is married to recently elected County Commissioner Kathryn Starkey. "It will certainly put it on the map as well as make it an innovative economic engine."

Pasco, with its large tracts of vacant land, is poised to be the next big thing for industries such as T. Rowe Price, which bought land along SR 54 near the Suncoast Parkway for a new campus. The firm has yet to start construction and still won't say when that will be, but must begin its first phase by 2015 under an agreement with the county.

"We're building jobs for the future," said J.D. Porter, manager for his family's Wiregrass Ranch property that has already become home to an outdoor mall, the Wesley Chapel hospital and the site that will house the PHCC campus. "We're not just fixing problems."

Gehring sees the expressway along the corridor as critical to making the area viable for businesses.

He envisions a "northern loop" much like Perimeter Road in Atlanta that would connect Pasco to the rest of the Tampa Bay area as well as to Lakeland and Orlando, which are part of the "super region" discussed in development circles.

He also foresees mixed use combinations such as residential areas with town centers and offices next to large employers such as T. Rowe.

"I think we're poised for the next major growth as the economy recovers," he said.

The challenge, say those involved in economic development, is to create pad-ready sites with infrastructure in place for businesses wanting to relocate quickly.

"We don't want businesses to have to look at a green field site and picture all the approvals they have to go through before they can walk through," Starkey said.

Those sites are key to attracting small to mid-size projects, said Economic Development Council president John Hagen. But the county still gets a lot of competition from its southern neighbors.

"Smaller projects don't sit and plan for two years out," he said. "Prices are still depressed in areas that have buildings, so it's tough to put out new construction while the market for existing buildings is still so anemic. But we're trying to get ready. Inventory will get soaked up, and prices will start to rise."

Officials say they want to bring back experts from the Urban Land Institute, a think tank of developers that five years ago recommended the county overhaul its land use rules and restructure its planning department to make it easier to lure businesses and jobs.

"That was a good first step," said John Walsh, vice president of the Pasco County Economic Development Council, one of the groups that pushed for the original study. "But we want to stay ahead of it."

Business projects, and promise, rise on the corridor.