Not many people understand the inner workings of Pasco County’s economy quite like David Engel, director of the county’s Office of Economic Growth.
Engel shared some of those insights as the featured guest speaker during The Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce July business breakfast at Golden Corral in Zephyrhills.
Engel’s office serves as the fiduciary and administrator of Penny for Pasco. It is tasked with executing the goals and strategies outlined in the county’s adopted Economic Development Plan and the Pasco County Commission’s adopted Strategic Plan.
In his role, Engel promotes economic development, job creation, and targeted industry recruitment and expansion for the Jobs and Economic Opportunities Trust Fund (Penny for Pasco) program.
Engel also provides oversight to the county’s Jobs and Economic Opportunities Committee.
He brings wide-ranging experience to the role, including more than 16 years of experience as a municipal planning director and transit-oriented development manager.
He also spent 10 years on Wall Street, as a senior research analyst, specializing in public finance, transportation and energy technology systems.
Engel’s 30-minute talk — during the July 1 gathering — was replete with details about Pasco’s evolving labor demographics.
In 1990, about 23% of the Pasco’s workforce commuted outside the county, which at that time was essentially a rural and agricultural county, Engel said.
By 2000, the out-of-county workforce commuter figure ballooned to 42%, and now, it’s roughly 46%.
Engel put those facts into perspective: “What that means is there’s 200,000 people that are working in this county, 46% of them get in the car and drive elsewhere, and that’s why, driving over today at 5:50 this morning, I hit traffic on (State Road) 54, if you can believe it, because the Suncoast Parkway’s the main commuter for the Tampa Bay area.”
Despite frustrating traffic pileups, Engel emphasized that the Pasco County Commission is “committed to a balanced lifestyle” incorporating a place for residents to live, work, play, learn and celebrate culture.
Engel is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners and holds a master’s in city and regional planning from Rutgers University.
He said through smarter development initiatives, the county is “providing a more inclusive environment so that people that live here can work here, they can send their kids to good schools, (and) there’s options.”
The county, he said, is refocusing its intention to create development that’s aesthetically pleasing and provide more than houses.
“We’re creating communities, not subdivisions,” Engel said.
His office also focuses on job skills training.
He said that the No. 1 question prospective businesses have is: “Where are my people going to live, and how am I going to get to work?”
Pasco’s unemployment rate is below both the state and region’s jobless rate.
He attributes that to the county’s “very sustainable, good economy.”
Engel also touted the benefits offered through programs such as CareerSource and AmSkills. The programs help people to attain skills, which improves their opportunities to land good jobs. And, it helps companies that have a need for trained workers.
Only 4.6% of the jobs in the county are in the manufacturing sector, Engel said.
But, he said, they are high-paying jobs and give young people good opportunities.
Engel also highlighted the increasing need for private employers to find buildings that are ready to house their operations.
When he joined the county three years ago, Engel said, inquiries would come in from companies looking to relocate to the area that would require 10,000 square feet to 15,000 square feet of workable space, within two months.
Satisfying the surging demand was a problem at the time.
“We had no inventory,” he said. “We really didn’t have the infrastructure to deal with the demand in the county.”
To resolve this matter, the county has what’s called Pasco Accelerated Development Sites (PADS) and Pasco Occupant-Ready Structure programs (PORS), funded through Penny for Pasco.
The programs provide “loans to support office and industrial-type development to provide the inventory here to absorb the demand that is coming in the door,” Engel said.
The county now has several hundred thousands of square feet of Class A office space up along the Suncoast Parkway and Northpointe Parkway (called NorthPointe Village), as well as State Road 54, near Ballantrae (called 54 Crossings). Asturia Corporate Center — a flex-industrial space along Lakepointe Parkway, in Odessa, has gone up, too.
There’s also demand for more light-industrial buildings — think spaces with 30-foot ceilings and loading docks — especially throughout East Pasco, the economic development expert said.
“We have so much demand for that. The east side needs it bad,” Engel said.
‘Trophy projects’ abound
The speaker went on to discuss a trio of what he referred to as “trophy projects,” in the county’s pipeline.
He first outlined Overpass Business Park, set on a 100-acre property at Old Pasco Road, that was formerly a county spray field.
The targeted industrial and office development master plan will support about 860,000 square feet, projected to create at least 1,500 new full-time jobs.
Commissioners approved a proposed incentive package to encourage the Rooker Company, based in Atlanta, to create an industrial park on the land.
It was initially made possible through a state grant in the waning days of former Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s administration, Engel said. The grant was to rip out old infrastructure and create a development-ready site.
Work began in February. A ribbon-cutting for the first industrial building is expected next summer.
The project is both ahead of schedule and under budget, Engel happily added.
A second notable project is the build out of the Lacoochee Industrial Area, which spans 90 acres near Bower and Coit roads.
The project area eventually will accommodate approximately 700,000 square feet of industrial/light industrial development to generate up to 1,000 new full-time jobs.
Community Development Block Grant and state appropriations are being combined toward rebuilding and repaving Coit Road, Bower Road and Cummer Road, he said.
Plans are in motion, as well, to construct a rail spur in the industrial area.
A targeted industry is already in place — The Reinforced Earth Company, which is a concrete product supplier that’s been hiring.
“Those are probably the first (new) jobs in Lacoochee in probably three or four decades that have been created,” Engel said.
The revitalization seeks to stimulate a community, in northeast Pasco, that’s been struggling since the sawmill company closed in 1959.
“It’s one of the most impoverished areas in the state of Florida. It’s sad, actually,” Engel said.
“When I first came here, I took a tour of the county. I saw a sign at a church that said, ‘No meals today,’ that’s how poor it is. The churches, because of the demand, had to turn people away for nourishment.
“They’re isolated and stranded, don’t have broadband service, the roads are in bad shape, people are living in actual shacks with metal roofs and vegetation (is) growing on them.”
Meanwhile, the picture is quite different in the Avalon Park Wesley Chapel development, which is located along State Road 54.
The urbanized mixed-use development situated on 215 acres will feature multi-story buildings with residential, commercial and general office uses.
The project calls for 2,695 residential units, 165,000 square feet of Class A office space and 190,400 square feet of commercial development. It is expected to generate 1,065 new full-time jobs, situated in a walkable neighborhood.
The owner-operator of the project is integrating public infrastructure, such as parking decks and roads, to meet the needs of the concentrated area.
Avalon Park Wesley Chapel will offer places to shop and work in its downtown hub that will be connected to its residential neighborhoods by tree-lined streets, walkways and bike paths.
Imagine restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops, bars and entertainment, hair and nail salons, as well as activities such as dance, gymnastic and karate studios.
The county offered up $32 million in ad valorem tax rebates to see the project through — with an expectation it will generate about $90 million in tax dollars on the backend.
Engel described Avalon Park as “a great project” creating “a downtown urban development for Wesley Chapel.”
Having a downtown area will help create a sense of place, where the community can gather, Engel observed.
He also noted its close proximity to Zephyrhills, making it convenient for the city’s residents to take advantage of Avalon Park’s offerings, if they choose to do so.
Elsewhere, Engel touched on multiple big-picture challenges the county faces in present and future.
One major task, he said, is identifying redevelopment opportunities, chiefly along older commercial corridors such as U.S. 19 and U.S. 301.
The corridors have the necessary infrastructure, but have long been synonymous for blight, graffiti and homelessness, issues that otherwise “really detracts from the hard-working community,” he said.
“That is stigmatizing this county,” said Engel. “You go out to other parts of this (Tampa Bay) area, (people) haven’t been up to Pasco in 20 years, and they’re just talking about U.S. 301 and U.S. 19 and how bad it looks, and they don’t have a clue, and we have to reeducate people using smart redevelopment.”
Another challenge for Engel’s office is finding additional ways to support Pasco’s small businesses — noting 80% of county businesses have fewer than 25 employees.
Penny for Pasco, in its current iteration, is only allowed to address target industries.
So, Engel and one of his staffers are using a small business engagement survey to better understand those business needs and desires.
A data-driven report will be presented to the county board, as Penny for Pasco funds are being authorized, Engel said.
Published July 21, 2021