For decades, the population center of Pasco County has been on its western, coastal side. Areas surrounding Port Richey and New Port Richey have always been the focus of activity thanks to their proximity to Pinellas County.
But by 2025, that could all change. The southern portion of Pasco County, which as late as 1990 had population rivaling only the northern rural parts of the county, will not only overtake the New Port Richey area, but will become the most populous in Pasco.
The area, which includes Wesley Chapel and Wiregrass Ranch, could reach as high as 309,000 people by 2040, putting Pasco on the path to 1 million residents. And the county will have to be ready.
“We have a big responsibility in the Tampa Bay area,” Melanie Kendrick, senior planner in Pasco County’s economic development department, told members of the Greater Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce late last month. “As companies are looking to come to this area, and companies in Hillsborough and Pinellas are expanding, they don’t have the room. And great cities grow north.”
In 1990, the southern portion of the county — which officials are calling “Gateway Crossings” — had just 30,500 residents, compared to the nearly 142,000 on the western side. In 2010, Gateway Crossings expanded to a little less than 120,000, a jump of 293 percent, while the western side grew just 28 percent to 182,000.
By 2025, Gateway Crossings is expected to grow to 214,000 people compared to 194,000 on the western side, according to numbers provided by Pasco County officials.
Already, 94 percent of Pasco’s population resides in the unincorporated areas.
“If the Pasco County Commission were a city commission, we would be the 12th largest city in the state,” Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said at the chamber meeting. “It’s an interesting challenge for us as commissioners as we have to act like a city commission, while other commissions like the one in Pinellas actually controls very little with so many incorporated areas there.”
Pasco is one of the fastest growing areas in the state, but still exports 90,000 people a day to Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, while importing just 40,000.
“If we could get people to work here in the county, we could bring our wages up,” Kendrick said.
To make that growth work, planning had to start a long time ago, and the county is getting its act together, Starkey said. One of the first major issues the commission had to address once Starkey arrived was the permitting process, which she described as a “disaster.”
“We were known as a difficult place to do business,” Starkey said. “We still are, but we are working on that.”
Permitting has been streamlined, removing a lot of red tape that existed before, with the hopes that smart growth will be encouraged by the private sector. That does mean, however, building up rather than out. Density is going to be key, but Pasco will need the infrastructure to support it.
Already, key areas like U.S. 41 and the Suncoast Parkway junctions with State Roads 54 and 52 have more than 2 million people living within a 40-minute drive time. Wiregrass Ranch already is not far behind with 1.92 million people within a couple gallons of gas.
Yet, Pasco still wants to keep its community spirit with aspects like sidewalks and neighborhoods. Yet, some traffic arteries must remain arteries.
“State Road 54 will not be a main street,” Kendrick said. “It will not be walkable, ever.”
Communities are springing up on either side of State Road 54, which are pedestrian-friendly, but the county is going to need a much expanded road system to carry the incoming population and avoid traffic gridlock.
“You can see the numbers coming into the area, and they are not going to fit on (State Road) 54,” Starkey said. “You could walk faster.”
The county, however, will have to find ways to pay for it. Property taxes already are lower than 60 other counties in the state, Kendrick said, and the recent failure of the additional gas tax by the county commission is going to make it nearly impossible to build more roads in the foreseeable future.
“We’ve had to build $8 million out of the budget to fund roads, and we are going to have to do something to fill that gap,” Starkey said. “It’s going to be a challenge.”
Representatives from the Urban Land Institute, which is helping Pasco County officials with long-range economic development plans, are visiting this week to follow up on recommendations made five years ago. Further suggestions on how to enhance and support growth in the county will be made in the coming months.