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  1. Business

Wiregrass gets federal ok for planned Raymond James site in Pasco County

WESLEY CHAPEL – It's not often a note from a federal regulatory agency brings celebratory glee. But an email in J.D. Porter's in-box last week signified a jump start to Raymond James Financial's plans for an office complex in Pasco County.

Porter, owner and developer of the Wiregrass Ranch, received the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proffer for an environmental permit for the 65-acre site at State Road 56 and Mansfield Boulevard, east of the Shops at Wiregrass mall.

"We couldn't be happier,'' Porter said. "We're excited. Raymond James is excited. I think everybody out there is excited.''

If Wiregrass Ranch and Raymond James agree to the proposed permit conditions, sign the proffer and pay the fee, they'll have the required federal permit. The permit is needed because the construction will impact about 2 acres of wetlands and a ditch, said Tracy Hurst, a U.S. Army Corps biologist.

The review of the permit application had left the Raymond James deal at a standstill for years.

"Because it was the one thing keeping the project from moving forward for so long, it (permit) is a reason to breath,'' said Bill Cronin, president/CEO of the Pasco Economic Development Council "Now we can continue to move forward.''

The company announced in 2011 that was considering a satellite campus in Wesley Chapel and signed a letter of intent with the Porter family to acquire the land at an undisclosed price.

Its initial plans called for two office towers for up to 750 newly created jobs. At the time, a Pasco Economic Development Council analysis indicated the Raymond James expansion could add $40 million to the county property tax rolls and generate $135 million in taxable sales. The state and Pasco County offered $14 million in incentives to complete the deal.

The company never closed on the land, however, pending approval of the federal environmental permit. But, it did submit preliminary site plans to the county in 2013 calling for six, four-story buildings totaling 1 million square feet, plus a parking garage. That same data was included in the permit application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In October 2014, the company said it still planned to buy the land, but that its development could be up to five years away.

The delays had left some public doubt whether Raymond James intended to complete the expansion to Pasco County. The lingering questions intensified in spring 2014 after T. Rowe Price scuttled its plans to build a similar campus along State Road 54 in central Pasco that included $30 million worth of incentives to create 1,600 jobs.

"I know that's a question that (the lengthy process) created some doubt in some people's minds, but now that it is in hand everybody feels better and is moving forward with this deal,'' Porter said.

The company said there is no firm timetable for beginning construction. Initial plans called for the company to build its first office building in 2013.

"Raymond James continues to evaluate occupancy needs as a part of the firm's long-term growth strategy. We believe the Wiregrass Ranch property is a good future development opportunity and expect to close on the property within the next three months, but cannot commit to a specific construction schedule at this time." Raymond James spokesman Steve Hollister said via email.

Porter said the next step is to amend the existing county-approved development agreements – providing updated time lines for the project – which would then trigger a contractual obligation to complete the sale within 30 days.

"I think this is another validation of what we've been saying all along,'' said Cronin of the Pasco EDC "Raymond James and the Porters – these guys are committed to doing something great in Pasco County. This is very much a big step forward.''