1. Business

Starkey Ranch latest to start new home construction as Pasco market picks up

ODESSA — The county's movers and shakers dined on jambalaya and posed for pictures with the loblolly bay tree they had ceremonially planted at Starkey Ranch, the newest planned community that expects to be selling homes by next year.

They oohed and ahhed over bedsheet-sized maps hanging between the openings in the pavilion that diagramed future homes, retailers and a never-before-tried venture: a park, library, and K-8 school site shared between the county and Pasco school district.

"I fought for that," said Kathryn Starkey, pointing to a red spot earmarked for a restaurant near the residential areas. The county commissioner and member of the pioneer family said she hopes for a restaurant with a porch that residents can walk to and enjoy food, entertainment and each other.

Up the road on State Road 54, billboards beckon commuters with ads for more new homes at Concord Station and the new Estancia at Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel.

It's quite a difference from the past five years when the only homes being advertised were foreclosures. Developers and analysts say the market for new homes, which virtually died during the Great Recession, is starting to show signs of life.

"The pace we've been on for so long is still substantially above where we are today," said Dan Green, principal of developer Wheelock Communities, which bought the 2,500-acre Starkey Ranch for about $50 million last year. He said, "Pasco County is positioning itself to be successful in the next 20 years."

Green's statements are echoed by analysts' reports that show the market is making gains, though not nearly at the frenetic pace of the boom years.

"In terms of both new single-family home closings and permits, 2013 was the best year in Pasco County since 2007," said Marvin Rose, author of the Rose Residential Report.

Rose said after posting modest gains in 2012, new residential closings and permits increased dramatically in 2013 with 1,520 closings.

That represents a 37 percent increase over 2102 and a 53 percent rise from 2011.

However, Rose and others attribute the heavy increase to the fact that the market had plunged so low during the bust.

"We're still building a fraction of what we used to even before the peak," said Tony Polito, consultant for housing research firm Metrostudy.

They say they expect more modest growth in 2014.

Rose said factors that could hinder sales include the large price gap between new and resale homes, foreclosures still in the pipeline, and owners who are encouraged by the market's performance to put "for sale" signs back in their yards.

However, plenty of positives remain. Those include reduced inventory as more resales get bought, an improving economy, hurricane-free weather, pent-up demand and lower unemployment.

Also, builders have used the dormant years to improve energy efficiency and structural quality, moves that may sway buyers toward new construction.

"It's absolutely picked up," said Lew Friedland, president of Adam Smith Enterprises, developers of Trinity. He attributes a large part of the turnaround for his area to the relocation of Community Hospital from the city of New Port Richey to State Road 54, where it was renamed Medical Center of Trinity.

"All of their employees and all those associated people around them are looking to move to the area," he said.

The two feed on each other, said John Hagen, CEO of the Pasco Economic Development Council. "Typically it's housing, then retail and employment," Hagen said. Areas of activity draw more employers, he said. "It helps if there are other employers there," he said. "Otherwise it seems risky, and people don't like to do anything risky."