NEW PORT RICHEY — While the landscape changed for nearly everything in the last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, one Pasco County community managed to blossom, making tangible changes for its future.
City leaders have pledged it is just the beginning.
Last year, about the time of the COVID-19 lockdown, New Port Richey officials were beginning a months-long project to rebrand their community and kick off a conceptual plan for redevelopment.
Blessed with a historic downtown and the Cotee River winding through both business and residential areas, city officials knew that New Port Richey had unique attributes to allow it to experience a renaissance.
Earlier this month, Tom McGilloway, a consultant with Mahan Rykiel, presented the final report on downtown redevelopment to City Council. He described the public investments New Port Richey can make to bring significant financial dividends down the road, once private investors come aboard.
The city will dip into its own coffers, spending up to $37 million to complete its goals over the next decade, but it could see $235 million in private investment for its efforts, McGilloway said.
Public investments could include adding lanes for bicycles and motorized scooters, improvements to the facades of city-owned buildings, and adding needed shade by planting trees or constructing shade structures in public areas like Railroad Square or along city streets. Signage, more interesting pavement treatments and development of Oak Park on River Road could be other areas slated for improvement.
The hope is that private investors will begin their own redevelopment, purchasing sites and revamping them in ways that fit with the goals outlined by the city’s consultants.
“Private investment will follow public investment,” city economic development director Charles Rudd assured council members earlier this month. But he said the city’s recent successes are going to spur that on. “They (private developers) will have more of a sense of security, that this is long term and it’s going to continue.”
“There’s plenty of interest,” Rudd added.
There is abundant evidence of that. The most noticeable example is at New Port Richey’s gateway, at U.S. 19 and Main Street. On the southeast corner, where one-story strip centers and outparcels with small businesses once made the site look like most other Pasco stretches of U.S. 19, the new Keiser University branch is nearing completion, with plans to begin classes in the fall.
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Next to that is the multi-story parking garage which will open later this month. The city-funded, four-story garage will provide 355 parking spaces for downtown businesses and the university, which provided the land to the city in exchange for parking.
Next month, the city hopes to debut another new feature, a 12-passenger golf cart shuttle to transport visitors from the garage and around New Port Richey’s downtown during special events.
And soon, another structure will rise from an adjacent, 1.29-acre parcel. City Manager Debbie Manns told the Tampa Bay Times that a developer plans a five-story hotel there. While a specific franchise has not yet been named, the site could be part of the Quality family, possibly a new prototype Comfort Inn and Suites with a minimum of 85 rooms. The project will be another $10 million investment and shot in the arm for community redevelopment, Manns said.
Consultants have recommended demarking the intersection of U.S. 19 and Main Street as the city’s entrance. One rendering shows a sign above the street as motorists turn east off U.S. 19 to head into downtown. Another suggestion has been to plant tall Washington palm trees on the intersection’s four corners, beckoning passersby to explore downtown.
An ongoing project has been the renovation of the historic Hacienda Hotel by Jim Gunderson, who also renovated the Lakeside Inn in Mount Dora. The hotel is on the National Register of Historic Places, and Gunderson is hoping to have the 42-room boutique hotel in the heart of downtown ready to open in September, Manns said.
A project soon expected to begin is the demolition of a hotel property on the southwest corner of U.S. 19 and Marine Parkway. Dubbed the Magnuson project, the name of the existing business and marina, the plan calls for construction of an up-scale condominium project with views of the water. The 150-unit project, Manns said, “will represent a market-type that isn’t currently available in the city,” with unit prices possibly in the $300,000 to $325,000 range.
And a recommended addition to the area is a pedestrian bridge over U.S. 19 in the area of Marine Parkway, south of the Southgate Shopping Center.
The city’s waterfront garnered plenty of interest from the consultants. Changes were recommended for Sims Park and its boat launch, including finding a better solution for boat trailer parking so that more of the waterfront could be opened up for other uses.
Much of the consultant focus, fueled by public input gathered at several sessions last year, was mindful of a desire to keep future New Port Richey development to scale and consistent with the community’s character. A community that was safe and walkable were also on the list of priorities. And while the focus was centered on downtown, the consultant and the City Council were clear that there needed to be a way to also improve residential areas, which will drive business development.
New Port Richey also got input from the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council. The organization advised the city how to make good redevelopment choices in the general area of U.S. 19, keeping in mind construction that would make sense for that zone. Models shown to the council of the storm surge impact from a direct hit of a Category 1 hurricane demonstrated that nearly all of that swath would be under water.
Even as New Port Richey’s conceptual planning process ends, its chance to show off what has been accomplished will come next month, when the city hosts the 2021 Preservation on Main Street conference, presented in partnership with New Port Richey Main Street and the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation.
Entitled “Reimagining the Road Ahead,” the conference will be held in New Port Richey from July 21-24 and will feature education sessions and other activities featuring New Port Richey’s special attributes.
Conference participants will visit the Oelsner Mound, recently added to the National Register of Historic Places, and several cemeteries, and they will also hear how the city rebranded itself during a pandemic and about the restoration work at the Hacienda.
Other side activities for participants will include boat rides on the Cotee River, a tour of Pasco’s stilt houses and a ghost tour.