Pasco County Extension is operating out of a new building at the Pasco County Fairgrounds.
The organization, which operates under a partnership between the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and Pasco County, also has adapted its programming to provide services during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Whitney Elmore, director of UF/IFAS Pasco County Extension, recently provided a tour of the new office to a reporter from The Laker/Lutz News.
The 6,400-square-foot facility is a massive upgrade from the Extension’s old office. It features a large, open classroom area — with the potential of adding a sliding wall, to convert the space into two rooms. It also has a small kitchenette and several offices.
“It’s a fantastic new opportunity, not only for the team, but for the citizens — to be able to come here and enjoy it — a very functional space,” Elmore said.
The new office, which opened in June, was about five years in the making.
It was constructed through a $1.1-million state grant combined with $244,000 in funding from Pasco County and $197,000 from the Pasco County Fair Association. The fair association applied for the state grant, which required local matching funds.
“Now, we have this nice, new facility that really meets our needs, and again, is an excellent educational facility,” Elmore said.
Though the doors are open, people aren’t streaming in yet — as Extension takes precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, following UF/IFAS and Pasco County protocols.
Like other operations throughout Florida, the Extension office closed when Florida went on lockdown.
Then, Extension pivoted.
“We went virtual, quickly. It’s not a surprise, because that’s what Extension is, anywhere — we adjust, we’re flexible, we’re adaptable.
“Honestly, I can’t be prouder of this team. I’m not surprised, but I can’t be prouder of the team.
“They just, literally, overnight, said, ‘OK, we’re not in person — which has been the standard for 100 years for Extension — we’re going to make the best of this, we’re going to adjust and we put everything on line.
“So, they just picked up and ran with it,” she said.
Even those who were not particularly comfortable with technology made the switch.
“They knew this is what had to be done. There was not one complaint. There was not one grumble from this team,” Elmore said.
The staff stays focused.
“We are very mission-oriented. We have servant’s hearts. The public needed us in so many ways, and that shifted some, especially with what we call ‘pandemic’ gardening.
“The horticulture questions went through the roof, with people working in our community gardens. Our community gardens employees were considered essential because that’s food systems related and those continued on, not missing a beat.
“We set up dozens of online learning opportunities. We partnered with the Pasco EDC, the Sheriff’s Office, you name it, to offer a wide variety of learning opportunities,” Elmore said.
The efforts received a tremendous response.
“Just our social media engagement went up about 4,000%, in a month,” the Extension services director said.
“We had people from other countries that were tuning in. Definitely, other parts of the state. They learned about us and they also learned about Pasco County,” she said.
Extension and the Pasco Economic Development Council Inc., also work together at a facility, called the One Stop Shop, on Lock Street in Dade City. The facility has a commercial kitchen and Pasco EDC offers programs aimed at helping entrepreneurs to establish businesses, and to help existing businesses thrive.
“We had people wanting to come from Miami to use our commercial space, at our One Stop Shop, because of some of the learning opportunities. It put a spotlight on Pasco County, and not just on Extension,” Elmore said.
Concerns about COVID-19 have caused a significant reduction of in-person classes and events.
“We do have some very small, in-person, teaching events. Those typically revolve around people needing to get a license, a certification, to continue or get new employment,” she said.
Some changes made to remain safe during COVID-19 will become permanent.
“At the end of the day, it’s been in a lot of ways, very beneficial,” she said.
Online programs are not only safer, they’re more convenient, Elmore said.
Extension has introduced new programming, which Elmore expects to continue on — even after in-person activities pick up.
“It opened up lines of creativity and collaboration, across program areas that we never really explored before, that just make sense now,” Elmore said.
Despite valuable changes that have resulted from COVID-19, there have terrible consequences, too, Elmore said.
“There are tremendous negatives to what has transpired. Economics. Jobs. People getting sick and dying.
“We have experienced that loss in our Extension family. Dorothy Moore, she was one of our master gardeners. She passed away in July, in Dade City.
“That was a hard hit for us. Emotionally, that took a toll,” she said, plus it required Extension staffers who had been in contact with Moore to quarantine for 14 days.
Published October 07, 2020