NEW PORT RICHEY — Mario Iezzoni talks in a way that makes strangers feel like they've known him for years. It's quick-paced and optimistic. He manages to maintain just as cheerful of a tone describing his ambitions as he does when rattling off millage rates and property taxes.
One of his favorite topics, perhaps, is about a town many in Tampa Bay skip over or even crack jokes about.
Iezzoni will tell you how when he started as New Port Richey's economic development director in 2013, all he saw were moths and buildings abandoned after the recession.
His roots were in business, but he had built up a reputation working and teaching at the University of South Florida's Small Business Development Center. To help guide a small city was the opportunity to try something new.
Six years later, he’s moving on. Iezzoni’s last day was June 7.
Where most saw a blighted area, Iezzoni saw a thriving future. It could be walkable. Apartments and homes close to cafes and breweries. Millennials don't want an hour commute from the suburbs to Tampa like their parents, Iezzoni said. Retirees want to know their neighbors and business owners.
If Dunedin could do it, why not New Port Richey? It even has better access to the ocean.
Now the vision is closer to reality. The downtown area is being stuffed with new businesses. Housing is being built nearby. The historic Hacienda Hotel finally has a clear path to opening.
The 62-year-old knew his last day was coming. His father-in-law passed away, leaving behind a family business with dedicated employees in Iezzoni's home state of Pennsylvania. So Iezzoni agreed to step in and become the home health care agency's chief financial officer.
But don't worry, he tells his friends. He can't leave the town he helped build.
“I’m like everybody else that loves New Port Richey," he said. "It’s probably tattooed to my soul.”
Debbie Manns, the city manager and a friend of Iezzoni, said it'll be difficult to fill the position of economic development director. She's in no rush to put someone in the seat.
Manns took the job as city manager partly because she admired Iezzoni's attitude and approach. She moved to Florida from Ohio for the position, but she and her son had to live in a hotel for more than 70 days while she looked for a permanent home. In the meantime, Iezzoni welcomed her to the region, and through friendly dinners at his home and field trips around town, Manns said she developed a close friendship with Iezzoni and his wife.
The two work well together because they had a similar vision for the city, she said. They recognized the city had underutilized assets downtown. They needed to redevelop Sims Park, reduce the vacancy rate and open the Hacienda Hotel.
After work, the two would sit on one of their porches and just talk about how the day went and what still needed to be done.
"We understood each other's strong suits and also recognized that we were weak in different areas and we just compensated well for each other and made a very effective team," she said.
Gerald Kuss, owner of Rose's Bistro downtown, said he met Iezzoni when he was looking for help to relocate a small business five years ago. Iezzoni walked Kuss through the grant process and always followed up. He even comes in to visit Rose's. He typically orders the special.
The business owners in the area are going to miss working with him, Kuss said. They gave him "nothing but high praise."
"They're kind of sad that he's leaving," he said. "I know I am."
Despite the friendships in government and with business owners, Iezzoni said the most difficult part of his job was being the bridge between the two.
New Port Richey used to have a reputation for being difficult to work with among entrepreneurs, said Frank Starkey, a real estate developer. That didn't start to change until Iezzoni stepped in and cleared a lot of the hassle. He became the point person for sales in the city and knew how to leverage the city's investments.
"He always worked very hard to get the city bureaucracy, as small as it is, to be more responsive and accommodating to new businesses coming to town," Starkey said.
Starkey is building apartments on the east side of Orange Lake called The Central on Orange Lake, which will be a $14 million investment. It’s set to open in 2020. He's one of many seeing the fire start to light in the city.
"It's about to take off," he said. "Mario deserves a lot of credit for what is already starting here."
Contact Paige Fry at email@example.com. Follow @paigexfry.