1. News

Pasco County using FSU grad students to help revive blighted west side

NEW PORT RICHEY — To tackle the task of reviving blighted west Pasco, Florida State University is coming to the rescue.

County commissioners voted last week to hire the FSU Planning and Development Lab to help put its 10-month-old, award-winning westside redevelopment plan into motion. The lab uses faculty and graduate students along with private partnerships to assist communities across the state on planning projects.

"The plan has been recognized very highly," said Matt Armstrong, an executive county planner. "It's an excellent plan, but now we get to actually do it so this plan doesn't sit on the shelf and collect dust."

The county developed a sweeping plan, which last year won an award from the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, but needed to do a more detailed analysis of retail and office areas to move redevelopment efforts along. A $200,000 proposal to do that was initially included in the 2013-14 budget but got cut because of flat revenues. Still, top officials said the effort was worthwhile and looked for other ways to make it happen.

Armstrong said the county planning staff has the expertise to handle some of the work in-house. The lab, which costs $90,000, costs less than a private consulting firm that charges about $150,000 for the same project. The money will come from the department's existing budget.

"It allows us to move forward so we don't lose a year or more," Armstrong told commissioners.

The lab's website it is "a nationally recognized resource which utilizes Florida as a laboratory" to help provide "sustainable growth and long-term viability of Florida communities."

"Our students are working on their master's degrees and in the final stages (they) work on a project," said Lindsay Stevens, the university's planner in residence who leads the program. She compared it to a doctor's training. "This is a planner's kind of residency."

The lab has completed a host of projects in a variety of areas, such as transportation and environmental planning.

The team will begin its first phase next month by holding meetings with business owners, developers, community leaders and residents. The team will also include gathering lots of demographic data on incomes, homes and commercial values. What's worked in other areas will be studied as well as the area's strengths and weaknesses. The team will take the county's plan for the 84-square-mile area and break it into several smaller areas for the study.

The second phase will start in the fall. By January, the team will have a list of strategy recommendations for the short and long term, Stevens said. The team's work will coincide with a two-day visit in July from a national planning organization that Pasco will receive after being selected for a federal smart growth technical assistance program sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Stevens admits that team members will have their work cut out for them, given the area's aging strip malls, hodgepodge of signs and rundown homes.

"It is a very challenged area," she said. "So many communities in Florida are facing similar challenges. A lot of businesses along the (U.S. 19) corridor 20 years ago have moved. We want to provide tools for the county to re-envision what the area could be and put policies in place from the regulatory side that encourage redevelopment in this area."

Armstrong said the west side, which the initial study named the Harbors, is still a strong economic engine. The area makes up 31 percent of the county's tax base and accounts for 20,000 jobs and 200,000 residents — about half of Pasco's population. It includes 20 miles of coastline and inland areas along U.S. 19 and Little Road corridors between Pinellas and Hernando counties.

"It's a huge part of the county," Armstrong said. "We neglect it at our peril."