1. Opinion

Editorial: Defining 'premier' and making it happen

Pasco County has an identity crisis. It wants to be a premier county in which to live and work but its government and civic leaders have no clear consensus on exactly what that means or a firm grasp on how to achieve it.

That astute observation came from Urban Land Institute representatives last week when they outlined Pasco's strengths and weaknesses as part of a follow-up to the group's visit here five years ago. The original 2008 study generated a culture change within county government to try to diversity Pasco's commercial and residential development. Some of the current recommendations are familiar because some of the same problems persist. Notably, there is too much land earmarked for development and the entitlements will produce more housing than the market will demand.

But, familiar does not mean faulty. The suggestion of using individual planning commissions in each of the county's five market areas is reminiscent of the sector planning done a decade ago as the county relied on five citizen subcommittees to rewrite its long-term land-use plan.

The ULI urged the county to take advantage of the charm of its cities and emphasize the downtowns as quality places to visit and enjoy. Likewise, the panel affirmed its support for Pasco's environmental preservation efforts, pushed for more walkable and connected communities and called for greater investment in tourism, parks, libraries and cultural activities.

Funding could come via increased gasoline and tourist taxes, both of which have been rejected by commissioners previously. A higher gas tax for road maintenance would allow the county to shift some sales tax dollars — ULI recommended $3.5 million — to bolster the quality of life offerings. The group recommended a higher tourist tax to tout the county's eco-tourism potential, a previous marketing strategy that has since been usurped by an emphasis on sports tourism.

The ULI panelists also repeated the 2008 pitch to use so-called tax-increment financing to help redevelop west Pasco. This time, however, they advocated tapping existing tax districts that the county created in conjunction with its mobility fees in 2011. Instead of financing mass transit or roads, the ULI suggested the county use some of the tax money from higher property values to acquire and assemble parcels in the U.S. 19 corridor for redevelopment.

It's a bold idea, but brings immediate concerns about diluting already stretched transportation dollars. It also raises the question of whether the west Pasco district — dubbed the Harbors market area by the county — can generate enough new revenue to warrant turning the county into a real estate speculator. It is a strategy that failed in downtown New Port Richey where the city now owns the old Hacienda Hotel and a former church site with no concrete redevelopment plans for either.

ULI also recommended focusing on health care as a cornerstone of both county economic development and the school district's career academies. It's not ideal because health care continues a trend of local industries serving the population that already resides here. The county has been told previously it would do better by pursuing insurance, financial or other companies that will import money into the local economy by serving a population beyond Pasco's borders. Likewise, school choice requires more than trained workers for the health care industry, and this week's announcement of a potential new academy partnership between the Pasco School District and Emory- Riddle Aeronautical University is an indication the school district does not intend to look solely at the medical field for career training.

There is much to digest in the ULI report, but the goal is admirable: Make Pasco County a better place. But success requires political will from commissioners, strong leadership from county staff and cooperative private-sector interests appreciative of the big picture, not just big profits. The last thing anybody should want is a return visit from ULI in 2018 with little or nothing crossed off the to-do list and Pasco still searching for its identity.