2016 marked by rapid growth, touching moments

The national election captured headlines and attention, but 2016 was an eventful year in many other ways, as well, across The Laker/Lutz News coverage area.

The big story is the region’s growth.

Eighty-eight-year-old Angel Torres, center, a veteran from Puerto Rico and a resident of the Baldomero Lopez State Veterans Nursing Home, is being positioned to have his photograph taken by Mark Fosket, of Valrico, during the ‘Honor Flight’ ceremony at the nursing home. Gabrielle Perrella, a volunteer from Baltimore, Maryland, who is dressed in a uniform costume, posed with each veteran for their portrait.
(File Photos)

New houses are popping up all over the place, with developments such as Long Lake Ranch, Estancia at Wiregrass Ranch, Connerton, Bexley and Asturia, just some of the residential communities beckoning to buyers.

Pasco County is on the move in many other ways, too.

A futuristic, technology-based network of communities across 7,800 acres in northeast Pasco County is in its planning stages.

Raymond James Financial has closed on a deal to buy 65 acres across from Pasco-Hernando State College’s Porter Campus at Wiregrass Ranch, with the financial services giant expected to have hundreds of workers in Pasco County at some point.

Florida Hospital Center Ice — a new 150,000-square-foot hockey arena and sports complex — is nearly set to open, and that is expected to be a big draw for both tournaments and tourists.

And then, there’s the commercial development that continues to transform the State Road 54/State Road 56 corridor, especially near the Interstate75/State Road 56 interchange.

Just in that vicinity alone, there’s Tampa Premium Outlets, Longhorn Steakhouse, BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse, Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, Chick-fil-A and Culver’s.

A 186,000-square-foot Costco Wholesale is expected to open in February, with an estimated 200 employees.

A historic photo of a baptism of members of the First Baptist Church of Lutz.

Just across the road, on the north side of State Road 56, Cypress Creek Town Center — another shopping development — is being built.

There are also plans for a new cinema, grocery store, apartments, shops and restaurants next to The Shops at Wiregrass, off State Road 56.

Of course, all of this growth is compounding traffic problems on area roads — and numerous projects are underway or are expected to begin work in coming years.

Improvements are expected to begin near the I-75/State Road 56 interchange. Wesley Chapel Boulevard is slated to be widened. An extension of State Road 56 is planned between Wesley Chapel and Zephyrhills, and discussion continues about the best solution for reducing congestion at U.S. 41 and State Road 54.

Growth is putting the squeeze on schools, too.

Pasco County Schools can’t keep pace with growing enrollments.

The district opened Wiregrass Elementary School, in Wesley Chapel, in August, to reduce crowding at area schools.

In the coming school year, it plans to open Bexley Elementary and Cypress Creek Middle/High.

Bexley is being built in a new subdivision off State Road 54. Cypress Creek Middle/High is going up on Old Pasco Road.

School board members gave preliminary approval for boundaries for Bexley and Cypress Creek at a contentious public hearing on Dec. 20. A final vote is expected on Jan. 17.

But, school board members and Superintendent Kurt Browning said the new schools fall far short of addressing district needs. They want the Pasco County Commission to require new residential construction to pay higher impact fees to support school construction.

Paramedic John Ward helps Sister Helen Lange blow out the candles that lit up her 103rd birthday cake at a party at Heritage Park in Dade City.

While growth and its ripple effects clearly dominated the news, there were plenty of other notable moments within the region during 2016.

For instance, there were heroics in everyday life.

On June 3, a fire claimed the life of a tiny black Chihuahua named Peanut, but not until after the dog’s persistent barking saved the life of three generations of a Lutz family.

Later that same week, quick actions by a student at Saddlebrook Preparatory School in Wesley Chapel averted potential tragedy at the international boarding school for aspiring golf and tennis players.

A student smelled smoke, investigated, pulled the alarm and help to ensure that all 28 students and two adults got out of the dorm safely.

It took 55 firefighters more than 1 ½ hours to put out the blaze.

This past year also was one of milestones and celebrations.

The First Baptist Church in Lutz celebrated its 75th anniversary, The San Antonio Rattlesnake Festival turned a half-century, Cox Elementary School turned 90 and the Town of St. Leo marked its 125th anniversary.

On a more personal note, Sister Helen Lange, of Dade City, received a surprise cake to mark her 103rd year on Sept. 28 in Dade City, and Nellie and Gain Hughs Bailey Sr., of Lutz, celebrated 70 years of married life on March 31.

There were inspiring moments, too.

Hundreds of people turned out for the “Honor Flight” celebration on Aug. 20, at the Baldomero Lopez State Veterans Home in Land O’ Lakes. The event provided a virtual tour of the nation’s war monuments because these veterans are unable to make the trip to Washington D.C.

The stands were also filled at Ron Allen Field at Gaither High School, in North Tampa, to attend the June 15 vigil to honor Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, one of 49 people killed during a mass shooting on June 12 at Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

There was the inspiring message, too, from Immaculee Ilibagiza, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, who spoke at two days of gatherings at St. Timothy Catholic Church in Lutz.

Ilibagiza’s family, friends and other members of her tribe were brutally murdered in Rwanda, but through her faith, she was able to forgive the killers.

Forgiveness, the genocide survivor said, brings freedom.

Published December 28, 2016

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