ZEPHYRHILLS — The 2020 U.S. Census has brought a special gift to the City of Pure Water.
Positioned just east of booming, unincorporated Wesley Chapel, Zephyrhills has edged out New Port Richey as Pasco County’s largest city in the new population count.
What does that earn Zephyrhills, once known mostly for its snowbird retirees, its water bottling plant and Skydive City?
“Bragging rights is what we get,” City Manager Billy Poe said. “We know we’ve made it, because we have a Chick-fil-A.”
City and business leaders have been focused on growth for awhile, and many of those initiatives are beginning to bear fruit, including improvements to the municipal airport and development for the nearby industrial corridor. The Sarah Vande Berg Tennis Center, which opened last year, is already slated for expansion.
Based on the new census numbers, Zephyrhills still skews older than Pasco County. About 34 percent of the city’s residents are 65 or older, compared to 23 percent countywide. The city also has a lower percentage of residents under 18 than the county.
While the 2019 population estimates still had New Port Richey on top, the official census numbers released this summer turned the tables. That formal count put Zephyrhills at 17,194 residents, a 29 percent jump from 2010. New Port Richey grew to 16,728, a 10 percent increase.
Pasco County’s population grew to 561,891, a 20.9 percent jump from 2010.
Zephyrhills leaders have not been touting their new place in the Pasco pecking order, but have instead laid the groundwork for growing the city’s economy.
“All you need to do is look around or drive through our city to see the amazing growth that is going on,” said Melonie Monson, chief executive officer for the Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce. “Our community is no longer the sleepy little town east of Wesley Chapel.”
Business growth and diversity also have continued in Zephyrhills, she said.
“We have some of the most eclectic restaurants around,” Monson said, adding that many were able to hang on and thrive despite the challenges of the pandemic.
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Earlier this month, local business leaders gathered for the Fifth Annual Zephyrhills Economic Summit. They talked about recent economic advancements, business growth and results from their detailed BizWalk survey of local businesses. Among the findings, they discussed the need to better prepare future job applicants for available opportunities.
That need for qualified employees has been a recurring theme, said Randy Stovall, chairman of the Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce.
A retired provost at Pasco-Hernando State College, Stovall is excited to see a new tool in job preparation on the horizon. Next year, the Pasco County School District will open its new magnet program, the Kirkland Ranch Academy of Innovation. Located off Curley Road, the school will offer core academics and job training programs, including construction, welding, robotics and cybersecurity.
Zephyrhills’ population growth isn’t a big surprise to Stovall, who has been active in various local chambers of commerce over the years. Because of the big influx of Northerners each winter, Zephyrhills historically created an attractive market. Positioned near Lakeland, Tampa and Wesley Chapel, big retailers caught on early to the community’s potential.
Echoing Poe, Stovall said the Chick-fil-A was a welcome addition, as were Panera and Starbucks. A Chipotle is expected to open soon.
“I still think it’s basically a friendly town. I think city government still wants people here to have good quality of life,” Stovall said. “This is a pretty good place to be.”
City officials also have been discussing issues typical of a growing community: residential growth, road and other infrastructure projects and new ways to market and promote what the city has to offer visitors.
Earlier this month, the City Council approved an architect and engineer for the next phase of the Sarah Vande Berg Tennis and Wellness Center and moved to bring the 10-acre parcel inside the city limits for that expansion. A state legislative allocation of $4,665,000 provided to the city earlier this year will pay for the project.
The site will also accommodate 32 homes, 18 town homes, a dormitory and a mixed-use building, the details of which have not yet been determined, Poe said. The site will be a public/private partnership. The city, which has until June 2023 to spend the state money, has not worked out all the details yet with the project developer, Poe said.
Poe said the tennis center has garnered the city some attention despite the pandemic canceling some events. At the French Open earlier this year, one participant sported a Sarah Vande Berg Tennis Center T-shirt.
“It’s done its job,” Poe said. “The center was built to be an economic driver and a catalyst for the city, and it has done that.”
Work also continues on improving the Zephyrhills Municipal Airport. Work is underway on extending the runway to more than 6,000 feet and should be done in early 2022, Poe said. A new jet parking area is also in the works, as well as plans for a taxiway rehabilitation project, updated fuel farm and maybe a terminal in the future, if the state will provide added funding.
State lawmakers also approved a $25 million allocation for construction of a National Guard Armory in Zephyrhills. Poe said that a tentative site north of the airport has been selected.
While the industrial corridor along Chauncey Road near the airport hasn’t taken off as much as the city might have hoped, Poe said, officials continue to work with both local and county economic development experts to keep that a priority.
“I’ve lived in Florida all my life and I’ve watched the growth,” said Zephyrhills Mayor Gene Whitfield. “Our greatest challenge is to manage that growth into the future with a mindset of trying to maintain that small community feeling.”
A third-generation East Pasco resident and owner of Whitfield Funeral Home, the mayor said he wants the area’s new additions to fit in with the more rural nature of that portion of Pasco County.
That means not wiping out all of the green spaces as businesses and residential communities sprout up on the city’s landscape, he said.
“I have children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren who live in this community. I want to be very cautious about how we manage the growth.”