Zephyrhills councilwoman bullish on town’s outlook

Zephyrhills City councilwoman Jodi Wilkeson has closely observed the evolution of the small-town East Pasco community over the past three decades.

The elected official and longtime resident is pleased, overall, with the current situation in the municipality — amid a period of rampant growth, development, infrastructure enhancements and other changes.

Some of the city’s major tackling points of late include:

  • The addition of thousands of new homes throughout city limits
  • Multimillion dollar expansions to the city’s wastewater treatment plant, municipal airport and municipal tennis center
  • Myriad roadwork projects, such as U.S. 301/Pretty Pond Road signalized intersection and paving of Simons Road
  • Work to revitalize the historic downtown district

This imminent progress can be traced to comprehensive plans solidified some 20 years ago, Wilkeson said during an East Pasco Networking Group meeting last month at IHOP in Dade City.

Zephyrhills City councilwoman Jodi Wilkeson (File)

Wilkeson, who is the founder and president of an architecture and interior design firm in Tampa, credits the city’s “history of success” to “a series of elected leaders who’ve helped move Zephyrhills forward.”

“All of this is possible,” she added, “because we had a plan.”

Unopposed in this year’s municipal election, Wilkeson is set to embark on her fourth term — in total — of serving on the City Council. She was elected to a three-year term in April 2018 and previously served from 2008 to 2014. She also serves as board president of the Zephyrhills Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA).

Wilkeson’s gateway into local volunteerism public service began as a concerned Zephyrhills citizen about 20 years ago when she responded to a mail-in survey regarding city utilities and services, then writing a detailed note to city administration and leadership.

Wilkeson joked that the conscientious letter was “a fatal error,” as she was asked to meet with then longtime city manager Steve Spina and planning director Todd Vande Berg to gain the resident’s perspective on municipal operations and other happenings in the city. “The moment I wrote that note, they said, ‘Oh, she’s smart and she knows what we’re doing, we need to get her in here,” Wilkeson recalled during the March 9 breakfast meeting.

She subsequently was urged to serve on the citizen-led Zephyrhills Planning Commission beginning in 2002, given her expertise as an interior architect, and ability to decipher building plans and drawings.

Later, she served on the Zephyrhills Historic Preservation Board, from 2004 to 2008. She also was a volunteer board member for Main Street Zephyrhills Inc. — organizing parades, events promoting local CRA district businesses and otherwise helping preserve the city’s unique charm.

She was acknowledged for her contributions by the Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce who named her “Volunteer of the Year” in 2007.

While serving on the city’s planning commission, Wilkeson discovered Zephyrhills and surrounding Pasco County previously had been — as described — “giving away the farm.” In other words, the area had been receiving less than favorable or beneficial returns on utilities, properties, land deals and so on.

Since then, however, the town has undergone a more proactive shift.

She credits the city’s planners and public works team.

“We really raised the bar in terms of fees and accessibility, and that’s why these developers continue to want to come to our city, because they can get in front of somebody that knows what they’re talking about, and now we don’t give away the farm anymore, and it’s transforming the way our community looks. There are no more metal buildings on (U.S.) 301, (and) we have invested millions of dollars in our downtown district, and the Main Street and CRA,” she said.

As CRA board president, Wilkeson told the breakfast crowd about some of the enhancements to the city’s historic CRA district —  which is a  special taxing district that spans roughly 500 acres through the center spine of Zephyrhills.

In that district, future revenues from increased property values are set aside in a trust fund to support economic development and redevelopment projects within the designated CRA area.

Wilkeson detailed how these funds have been allocated toward business and residential façade grants, landscaping beautification, and maintaining the historical architecture of the area via special light fixtures, wayfinding signage and so on.

One program involves providing $5,000 grants to encourage the purchase of a single-family home within the CRA District. The idea is to spur purchases within distressed neighborhoods and to improve the owner-occupancy rate within the district. It also is meant to encourage a neighborhood friendly walkable community.

This initiative and other changes, Wilkeson said, have spurred Tampa Bay area families “who want to be able to roll their kids down in a stroller and watch a parade through downtown Main Street,” to purchase homes within the city’s CRA district. “These are people who are coming in from Tampa and St. Pete and saying, ‘We love the charm of your little community’ and they buy houses in the historic district,” she said.

Previously, Wilkeson said, “we were not reinvesting in this community and we had these older homes that were rentals, and they were a crime problem and a code enforcement problem.”

Wilkeson also expressed confidence in the city’s direction under the leadership of Zephyrhills City Manager Billy Poe.

Poe was named Zephyrhills assistant city manager in November 2018, then stepped up to replace the retiring Spina come July 2019.

Poe, born and raised in Zephyrhills, began his career as an intern with city administration, then spent several years working as an assistant city planner. Poe went on to land a city manager role with Dade City in 2008, a position he held for over a decade.

Wilkeson was part of the committee that ultimately selected Poe as Spina’s successor a couple years ago.

“Billy was a natural choice,” Wilkeson said. “He knew the city. He had 11 years (of) experience in Dade City as a city manager. It was a great launching pad for him to come to the city. He had a transition period with Steve Spina that helped him get everything up to speed and take over, and it’s been a nearly seamless transition.”

Published April 14, 2021

June opening anticipated for Dade City bike hub

Bicyclists and fellow exercisers alike will soon have an idyllic spot in Dade City to relax and take a breather — thanks to a new visitor’s information welcome center and bike hub that’ll help anchor a forthcoming downtown park site.

The visitor’s information welcome center/bike hub concept — aptly referred to as “Spoke” or “Hub” — will be situated in the heart of downtown Dade City, across from the Roy T. Hardy trailhead, at the corner of Church Avenue and Eighth Street.

The visitor’s center/bike hub is just one aspect of a grander 2-acre-plus downtown park site in Dade City, to eventually include an inclusive/ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act)-accessible playground, amphitheater for outdoor venues and children’s splash pad, among other amenities. (Courtesy of City of Dade City)

Project construction officially kicked off following a March 10 groundbreaking ceremony. Since then, footers have since been set and concrete poured.

Dade City officials anticipate a June grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony, according to a presentation from the city’s community and economic development director Melanie Romagnoli, during a March 24 Pasco County Tourist Development Council meeting.

The tourist-friendly project is multi-faceted.

The roughly 1,500 square-foot welcome center takes on an open space interior concept that will house brochure kiosks for other countywide tourism partners to promote upcoming activities and attractions, museums, art exhibits and places of interest.

The city also is seeking sponsorships to incorporate digital displays, additional outlets and internet connectivity capabilities at the center.

Romagnoli explained of the concept: “We want to be able to have a mobile area for our partners in the tourism industry to be able to display what’s going on in their areas, so it can be anything from, let’s say, like the Dade City Heritage (and Cultural) Museum, or even the West Pasco (Historical Society) Museum, if they want to bring something over and put it in.”

The facility also will include two outdoor covered porch areas with seating options, as well as an exterior bike shelter, with parking stations and repair stands for traveling bicyclists. Two public restrooms also will be included.

The welcome center/bike hub is being funded with the help of a $250,000 grant from the Pasco County Tourist Development Council (TDC) and its official destination marketing organization, Experience Florida’s Sports Coast, which promotes Pasco’s varied outdoor and recreational offerings.

Pasco County TDC chairman Mike Moore during the meeting said the welcome center/bike hub will be “a great addition to the community and county, as a whole.”

The facility is a corner part of the quaint East Pasco town’s multi-use downtown park concept —  to eventually feature an inclusive/ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act)-accessible playground, amphitheater for outdoor venues, and children’s splash pad and other amenities.

The city originally purchased a 2.23-acre property for the park site in December 2019 for $800,000 from the family of local businessman Otto Weitzenkorn.

From there, the bidding process, construction contracts and permitting on the visitor’s center/bike hub alone wrapped up in February.

Other elements of the planned park may not come to fruition for some time, as the city collects public input, and establishes specific design and engineered plans.

Total investment of the entire downtown park could exceed $3 million, officials previously have estimated.

The city is seeking grant opportunities and other funding sources to help pay for the multi-use park.

Dade City leaders have said the park project is designed to help revitalize the downtown business district, while also offering another recreational outlet for local youth, residents and visitors.

Officials also say that the park fits with the city’s vision of fostering a healthy and age-friendly community.

Published April 14, 2021

Garden club plans Arbor Day celebration

The annual Arbor Day and Memorial Celebration is set for April 30 at 10 a.m., at the Dade City Garden Club, 13630 Fifth St., in Dade City.

The event marks the 26th year that the City of Dade City and the Dade City Garden Club have jointly sponsored the Arbor Day/Memorial Day program.

(File)

The event usually is held the third Friday in January, which is the day the State of Florida celebrates Arbor Day, but this year’s event has been rescheduled to coincide with National Arbor Day on April 30, according to a news release.

This year, the Dade City Garden Club sponsored an art contest for the students at Centennial Elementary School in Dade City.

Students learned about the history of Arbor Day and were asked to design a cover fitting for the Arbor Day Program to be printed for the event. The winners will be announced, and the grand prize winner will be recognized at the event.

Memorial trees that have been given throughout the year will be recognized. Trees are dedicated in memory of or in honor of a person or special occasion, and are living and lasting tributes that add beauty to the city and quality to the environment.

Speakers for the event will be Dade City’s own Cowboy Poet Steve Melton, and Foresters Mona Neville and Arthur Clothier from the Florida Forest Service.

The Garden Club is extending a special invitation to the public to join them for this event to celebrate Arbor Day and to honor the tree recipients.

For more information, email Ruth Anderson at .

Published April 14, 2021