Penny for Pasco starts a new round of funding in January, using an extra 1 percent sales tax to provide nearly $50 million in additional annual funding for Pasco County projects over the next decade.
But how should the money be spent? In the past, dollars have been dedicated to the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, road construction and maintenance, and purchasing land for conservation.
This time, however, nearly 10 percent of funds — or $4.5 million — has been earmarked toward economic development. And if spent the right way, leaders from the independent Pasco Economic Development Council say the impact of those funds could be tremendous, bringing new commercial parks and maybe even a convention center to Pasco County.
“It should create jobs and it should grow the economy,” PEDC president and chief executive John Hagen recently told Pasco County commissioners during a workshop. “If it doesn’t do that, then it’s not economic development. That means attracting businesses that actually bring money into the community.”
Of course, $4.5 million each year might not be the best way to accomplish that goal, Hagen said. But $36 million all up front? That can go a long way.
“We think it’s important to use leverage,” he said. “We’d rather get some of that revenue upfront now, so that we can get more of an impact over the 10-year period, rather than wait. We need jobs and we need economic development now.”
That could mean borrowing up to 80 percent of the projected revenue over the next 10 years, and using revenue from those projects — or simply funds from Penny for Pasco itself — to pay it back.
If commissioners were to take that route, the county could take the lead in attracting new businesses to Pasco, instead of losing them to neighbors like Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. That starts with a business park project, assembling land together somewhere in the county and earmarking all of it for commercial use.
It continues with speculation building — helping developers construct commercial space in hopes it will attract tenants once completed.
And it would be topped off with a convention center, possibly built in conjunction with a hotel, that could provide even more reasons to bring people into Pasco County.
“We have a very pressing need to develop some real estate product, and by that I don’t mean residential,” Hagen said. “I mean office and industrial flex space, something we need to put a significant amount of money into because we’re experiencing the loss of opportunities right now because we don’t have the product” to offer potential relocations.
Commissioners appeared receptive to the concepts, and even saw it as a chance to jump ahead of its neighbors.
“I think Pinellas County’s whole economic development budget is $1.2 million, and we’ve got such an advantage with this penny,” Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said. “I am excited. I like the idea of planning ahead like this so that we know where we need to go.”
Although borrowing to support economic development projects would increase the county’s current debt, Hagen said it could actually save Pasco money in the long run. Construction costs will undoubtedly go up between now and 2025, and if interest rates rise, it will cost more just to borrow in the future compared to today.
Having the right plan and the money to implement it has the potential to put Pasco on the map, county planning and development administrator Richard Gehring said. Places like Triangle Park in North Carolina were created from strong planning and the funding to make it happen. Nothing is stopping Pasco from looking to reach similar heights.
“There is not an upper limit for what we could shoot for,” he said. “The potential for the access and land position is tremendous.”
Although its numbers are meant to show examples, this is how the Pasco Economic Development Council says it can spend part of Penny for Pasco revenues.
Added to an existing $2.5 million fund used as an incentive to bring large employers to Pasco County.
Assembling land and promoting speculation building through the development of a business park. Also, construction of a convention center.
Earmarked for business loans, business investment fund and business incubation.
Marketing and branding campaign to promote what Pasco County has to offer.
Workforce training, enhancing more than $4.5 million from state and federal sources.
Published April 23, 2014