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Bowen: Seeking a medical mecca amid a redeveloping New Port Richey

This might be the definitive little city moment. You meet the deputy mayor for a 9 a.m. cup of coffee, and two tables over sits the mayor having his own breakfast meeting.

For a moment, it conjures up the scene in the Michael J. Fox movie Doc Hollywood in which the entire town council in a South Carolina hamlet is eating breakfast in the same local diner.

"It is a small town,'' agrees Bill Phillips, the No. 2 guy on New Port Richey City Council.

Indeed. Our gathering is in the dining room of a downtown institution, Jimmy's, on Grand Boulevard, where they've been serving up biscuits and gravy for more than four decades. It seems an appropriate location for the discussion at hand: preserving the city's attributes while seeking new opportunities.

The biggest opportunity sits about a dozen blocks away, a big white elephant decorated with orange hurricane-like fencing to cut off access. It's the former Community Hospital owned by HCA, and it's poised to meet a bulldozer.

About 85 percent of the 300,000-square-foot building is projected to come down, leaving behind just the mental health services center. It's not an unexpected development. In fact, you could legitimately ask: What took them so long?

When HCA first announced its intentions to leave the city in 2002, it said then that the complex would be razed because it would be too costly to renovate. The hospital moved and rebranded itself as Trinity Medical Center in 2012, but left open the possibility of continued services at the New Port Richey campus.

Demolition ends that potential, but opens up another. The city supports the idea of the Veterans Administration putting its planned 114,000-square-foot clinic on that property. It won't bring the same property tax windfall that a for-profit hospital generated for New Port Richey, but it would mean scores of high-wage jobs returning to the city.

It could be a thousand jobs, says Phillips, with pay ranging from $30,000 blue-collar positions to $300,000 for physicians.

"That'll filter back into every neighborhood in New Port Richey,'' he says.

The hospital, at Marine Parkway and Grand Boulevard, is at the center of what the city calls its Marine District. The city plans to connect it to Morton Plant North Bay Hospital on Madison Street via extended streetscaping, creating what could become a medical services corridor with the hospital properties as bookends.

It's easy to understand the city's desire. Health care is a vital component to the Pasco economy. HCA's two west Pasco hospitals, Medical Center of Trinity and Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point, for instance, have a combined annual economic impact of almost $300 million, the company has said, including payroll and benefits for nearly 2,600 employees, taxes, capital investment and transactions with local vendors.

The city, unfortunately, has been on the other end of those numbers. The value of the Community Hospital site dropped by three-quarters from $20 million to $5 million between 2005 and 2013, and the surrounding medical office buildings lost half their values. Many were shuttered as the medical service professionals followed the hospital to Trinity.

Business development is just one of the issues confronting the city, but its downtown efforts did get a significant boost recently. State Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, acquired the closed Spoonbills Restaurant property on Main Street along the Pithlachascotee River and plans to demolish the structure and rebuild it as a Beef 'O'Brady's restaurant.

Spoonbills, opened by former Mayor Peter Altman, shut down nine years ago. It, the stalled Main Street Landings project across the river and the vacant Hacienda Hotel nearby became daily visual reminders of stymied redevelopment in the city's downtown core. The planned revitalization is starting to show signs of improvement.

Simpson is a big advocate for redevelopment and community investment, having refurbished older buildings in downtown Dade City and San Antonio. He also plans to open commercial office space next year in three buildings he owns in downtown Zephyr-hills.

"Florida is not going to be fully recovered,'' said Simpson, "until our small cities and communities are fully recovered.''

In New Port Richey, the renewed hope for a full recovery still includes a heavy dose of medical economics.