Embrace medical growth, ditch old habits, experts say

Nancy Reagan made the saying popular in the 1980s, and it’s time Pasco County learns it: Just say no.

That was the recommendation of the Urban Land Institute, the independent growth and development analytical group that has spent the past five years exploring the ins and outs of the county.

And in its first major presentation of its findings in a meeting last week, ULI officials said Pasco has approved enough residential and commercial development that would keep builders busy — until 2088.

If Pasco County wants to become a major player in the development and growth of the Tampa Bay area, it has to really focus on the medical industry. That means empty land like this surrounding Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel will need to be filled with supporting medical offices, officials said. (Photo by Michael Hinman)

If Pasco County wants to become a major player in the development and growth of the Tampa Bay area, it has to really focus on the medical industry. That means empty land like this surrounding Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel will need to be filled with supporting medical offices, officials said. (Photo by Michael Hinman)

“This condition presents tremendous challenges to the master planner,” said Dan Conway, an urban land economist from Denver who works with ULI. “Supply outpaces demand by a factor of 8-to-1.”

That number caught retiring County Commissioner Pat Mulieri by surprise.

“I think it’s interesting, the idea that we have to say no,” Mulieri said after the meeting. “We recently started not spreading (new development) like peanut butter, but I didn’t know we had enough for 75 years. I would be 150 by the time they had it all built.”

The oversupply shows growth management in Pasco is out of control, Conway said, and could also affect overall values. By not focusing on key geographic areas — especially those areas that are already set up for utilities and other services — the growth in Pasco could easily become more expensive than the county can bear.

Over the next decade, the Tampa Bay region will average about 25,600 new jobs each year, bringing 53,000 new people into the area annually. Of that, 3,600 jobs will be created in Pasco each year, causing population to grow by 11,000.

And a third of those jobs, not surprisingly, will come from health care, said April Anderson Lamoureux, an economic development expert who worked under Massachusetts governors Mitt Romney and Deval Patrick, who now lends her services to ULI.

“You need to review all your public expenditures throughout the county and think of new ways to drive those dollars,” Lamoureux said. “And 25 percent of that marketing should go exclusively to the health market. This includes going to health companies, pitching them to locate in Pasco, and developing tools specific to the industry that will entice them to pick Pasco over other viable opportunities.”

The health care market in Pasco has exploded, especially in the central part of the county, where two new hospitals have been built in recent years. Pasco has to ensure the appropriate supporting medical facilities and doctor offices surround the hospitals.

Not only does the county have to attract the right companies, but it also needs to provide the necessary infrastructure — like workforce housing, efficient public transportation, and the appropriate retail and pedestrian routes to support the employee base that would work on these expanded campuses.

“Career academies are a terrific resource, but we should be careful not to dilute the offerings,” Lamoureux said. Instead, the county could focus on specific medical disciplines.

County Administrator Michele Baker said she took 10 pages of notes throughout the ULI presentation, and would need some time to absorb all the information shared. She does agree, however, that it’s time to cast away some of the old habits — like approving new development without considering its future impact — and make room for some new ones.

“I’ve been here for 20 years, so some of those old habits might be mine,” Baker said. “I might have to do a little gut-check myself.”

The key to successful growth would be a stronger working relationship between the county and its incorporated towns, a relationship that has never been solid. Yet, consistency across the board is going to be necessary to get Pasco back on the right development track, and that means having cities like Zephyrhills and New Port Richey as partners will be key.

“We cannot do it alone,” Baker said. “It requires better dialogue between us and the cities, and us and the development community to seek out the opportunities for us to take advantage of.”

Obstacles facing Pasco County
The Urban Land Institute outlined the key areas that are holding Pasco County back. They include:
Absorption and Projections — Approved growth far exceeds the county’s absorption capacity, meaning it will take decades for all the approved developments to actually be built.
Sustainable Site Systems — Pasco needs to increase the priority for quality of life services, like affordable housing and transportation.
Transportation Planning and Funding — Pasco needs to collaborate on regional transportation services, working with other counties to make everything connect.
Economic Development — The biggest focus here must be on the medical industry as well as ecotourism.
Shaping Strategies — County planners have to think further out with more effective plans to make future growth work.
Leadership — Get rid of old habits. It’s holding the county back.
Fiscal — The overall vision needs funding. That means reconsidering the gas tax, and possibly increasing the tourism room tax.

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