Pasco County’s development ready to take off

Dreams and visions for the redevelopment of Pasco County began more than two decades ago. Today, homes, shops, hotels, offices and medical campuses are coming out of the ground and redrawing the county’s future.

On March 1, developers of four of Pasco’s master-planned communities updated more than 100 people who came to the annual Meet the Developers breakfast. The Pasco Economic Development Council sponsored the event at the Marriott Residence Inn, off State Road 54.

In closing remarks, Bill Cronin, president of Pasco EDC said, “this is the right time, the right place for Pasco County…If nothing else, I hope you have that ‘oh, wow’ effect. That’s not the Pasco I knew.”

Bill Cronin, president of the Pasco Economic Development Council, left, introduces developers who spoke at a ‘Meet the Developers’ breakfast. They are: Matt Call, project director of Starkey Ranch/Wheelock Communities; Tom Panaseny, vice president/general manager of Bexley by Newland Communities; J.D. Porter, president of sales and development of Wiregrass Ranch Inc.; and, Kartik Goyani, vice president of operations for Metro Development Group LLC.
(Courtesy of Pasco Economic Development Council)

Speakers at the breakfast were Matt Call, project director at Starkey Ranch, which is being developed by Wheelock Communities; Tom Panaseny, vice president and general manager for Bexley by Newland Communities; J.D. Porter, president of sales and development of Wiregrass Ranch Inc.; and, Kartik Goyani, vice president of operations for Metro Development Group Inc.

“We’re all selling this dream and vision of where Pasco can go,” Call said.

Three years ago, Starkey Ranch, about four miles west of the Suncoast Parkway, off State Road 54, was largely still on the drawing board.

Today, Starkey Ranch anticipates having more than 300 new homes under contract in a year, Call said. So far, there have been more than 150 closings, he added.

The average price of homes being sold there is in the low to mid-$400,000s. The most expensive home — at about 4,800 square feet – sold within the past two weeks for about $874,000.

“Most are not first-time homebuyers,” Call said. “Most are moving-up buyers.”

Upcoming projects included widening Gunn Highway and extending the road into Starkey Ranch.

About one-third of a 20-mile trail system is built and will eventually connect with Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Preserve and the Suncoast Trail.

A business park, fronting State Road 54, is in the works. A town square is planned for 2018.

While Newland Communities is new to Pasco, its track record in Tampa Bay includes master-planned communities in Hillsborough County, including FishHawk Ranch in Riverview and Westchase in Town ‘n Country.

Panaseny described Newland as the largest private developer of planned communities in the country, with projects in 19 states, stretching from coast to coast.

The homebuilder’s first Pasco community is Bexley Ranch, in an area encompassing about 1,700 acres. It is located also on State Road 54, east of Suncoast Parkway.

The Bexley family is developing another 5,000 adjacent acres still under their control.

The Newland project is zoned for more than 1,700 homes; about 95,000 square feet of retail; and, more than 560,000 square feet of office, though that could increase to as much as 1 million square feet.

About five miles of a planned 13-mile trail system is built.

An elementary school now under construction is scheduled to open in August.

About 400 lots are available, with 400 additional lots expected to be ready by the end of the year. Twelve model homes are open for viewing.

Bexley also is planned for offices, shops and a hotel, as well as apartments and single-family homes.

A groundbreaking is anticipated in March for more than 300 apartments.

Access to Bexley currently is through the Ballantrae community to the east. But, within 60 to 90 days, Panaseny said Bexley Village Drive should open, with access directly off State Road 54.

The average home price is about $350,000.

“It’s been a strong market,” Panaseny said.

Upcoming projects include a medical facility, a Race Trac gas station and convenience store, and a 7-acre shopping center.

“We’d love to have a grocery store anchor the center, or possibly restaurants,” Panaseny said.

A Marriott hotel is expected to break ground in July.

There also is about 32 acres available for offices. “We very much want to bring Class A office space here,” he said.

Wiregrass Ranch is rebranding itself, with a new logo and a re-energized focus as new developments in the master-planned community emerge.

Wiregrass is the fastest growing community in the Tampa Bay area, said Porter, of  Wiregrass Ranch Inc.

The property is zoned for 10,500 homes; 2.7 million square feet of retail; 2.6 million square feet of office; and 600 hotel beds. A middle school and a high school have been built. Additional retail and office space are planned.

Next to The Shops at Wiregrass, plans are underway for an expansion that will include high-end shops and boutiques, a cine bistro, a grocery store and apartments.

Raymond James Financial campus is expected to start construction later this year on a campus that could have about 1 million square feet of office space and an 1,800-space parking garage.

Medical facilities are filling up the surrounding area. They include Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel, Florida Medical Clinic and North Tampa Behavioral Health.

Beach House is an upscale assisted living facility under construction.

“You’re going to continue to see good, smart growth because it’s an environment people want to be in,” said Porter.

Metro Development Group is building a master-planned community at Epperson Ranch, which is part of a state-approved pilot program to create a Connected City corridor built with technology innovations. At build out, Metro is projecting about 37,000 homes; 12 million square-feet of office, retail and technology manufacturing; 100 miles of traffic lanes for self-driving vehicles; and two Crystal Lagoons.

The first lagoon at Epperson Ranch is a 7-acre, manmade pool of crystal blue water under construction at Epperson Ranch, off State Road 52 at Overpass Road. To the north, a second community, known as Mirada, is also planned with a larger Crystal Lagoon.

Metro controls about 35 percent of land within Connected City, which sets aside about 7,800 acres in northeastern Pasco. Metro and other developers are expected to build master-planned communities embedded with cutting-edge technology, and focused on creating technology driven jobs and new businesses.

A groundbreaking for the Crystal Lagoon at Epperson happened in February. The lagoon is expected to be complete by the end of 2017. In the first weeks, 15 homes have sold, and there is a waiting list of more than 1,000 people who want to buy, said Kartik Goyani, vice president of operations for Metro.

Published March 8, 2017

Commissioners approve Connected City

A champagne toast and tethered hot-air balloon rides heralded the groundbreaking for a 7-acre manmade Crystal Lagoon that — when finished — will be large enough for six football fields, end to end.

In the background, construction workers stirred dust and hammered nails into model homes for the first master-planned community in Epperson Ranch, along the Connected City corridor. The Crystal Lagoon is the splashy jewel at the center of Epperson.

Connected City, if successful, could become Pasco’s economic jewel.

Pasco County commissioners voted unanimously on Feb. 7 to approve the framework to establish the Connected City, as a state-approved 10-year pilot program to foster a technology-based “city of the future.”

Dignitaries picked up shovels and tossed dirt at a ceremonial groundbreaking for Crystal Lagoon, a 7-acre, manmade lagoon at Epperson Ranch.
(Courtesy of Cole Media Productions)

At its 50-year build out, the Connected City is expected to have more than 96,000 residents within multiple neighborhoods; 37,000 homes and apartments; as many as 7.2 million square feet of employment facilities; and, a role-model reputation for technology innovation.

But, for now, all eyes are on Epperson and the Crystal Lagoon in northeastern Pasco, at Curley and Overpass roads. The mammoth swimming pool, with clear blue, see-through waters, is a global phenomenon, with locations in Chile and Cabo San Lucas in Mexico. Pasco’s Crystal Lagoon will be the first in the nation.

“It’s like swimming in a bottle of Zephyrhills water,” said Greg Singleton, president of Metro Development Group. “It’s so incredibly clear.”

It took more than two years of planning, workshops and negotiations to reach the groundbreaking at Epperson on Feb. 2, followed by the Connected City vote nearly a week later.

“It was worth the time. I say congratulations to everybody,” said Pasco County Commission Chairman Mike Moore. “I think we’ll see great things for our neighborhoods. All eyes are going to be upon us now. People will be coming to Pasco County, to follow suit.”

State lawmakers carved out about 7,800 acres in northeastern Pasco, in 2015, for a special development district. The boundaries are Interstate 75, State Road 52, and Curley and Overpass roads.

State law, and now county approval, set in motion a 10-year pilot program to encourage mixed-use development projects and master-planned communities built from the ground up with cutting edge technology.

“At the end of the day, I feel it’s the right thing for the county,” said Pasco County Commissioner Mike Wells. “It comes down to job creation for me.”

Still, the excitement level created by Connected City isn’t shared by everyone.

Resident Jennifer McCarthy has been a frequent critic of Connected City at prior meetings. She and her husband, Chris McCarthy, attended the final hearing on Feb. 2, but neither spoke during public comment.

They both remain worried about property rights of residents who have lived in the area for decades. Increased traffic is another issue, especially on Kenton Road where they live.

They also aren’t convinced that the area can become another technology-heavy Silicon Valley.

“This isn’t California,” said Jennifer McCarthy.

Resident Nancy Hazelwood worries about preserving the rural character of the area.

She objected when county commissioners voted to carve out a portion of the Villages of Pasadena Hills, and to add it into Connected City boundaries.

County commissioners said that made sense because the state-drawn boundaries overlapped into one of the Villages’ neighborhoods.

It was the third time, Hazelwood said, that the county gave up rural land to accommodate urban development.

“You keep taking things from what we were given at one time,” she said.

Change is coming.

Metro Development Group anticipates completion of the lagoon in 2017, with the opening of model homes in late 2017 or early 2018.

Metro Development Group is working in a public-private partnership with Pasco County on the initial development within Connected City. The development company controls about 35 percent of the targeted area.

A second community – known as Mirada – is planned by Metro Development Group, along with a second Crystal Lagoon of more than 10 acres.

In return for meeting more than 50 development criteria, the county is offering mobility fee credits and a faster-than-usual review process to Connected City projects.

Technology is the premier feature in what is expected to entice high-paying jobs to Pasco.

The vision is for the entire area to become a northern gateway into the Tampa Bay region, with links to commerce and education centers to the south, including the research-oriented University of South Florida.

“I am doing everything I can to hook them up with tech companies,” said Pasco County Commissioner Kathryn Starkey.

Published February 15, 2017

Connected City vote on Pasco’s agenda

A final decision on an ambitious technology-driven community in eastern Pasco County – known as Connected City – is at hand.

The Pasco County Commission will have a final public hearing on the project on Feb. 7 at 1:30 p.m., in Dade City.

The Meridian Autonomous vehicle, known as the World Bus by Mobi-Cubed, will be the first self-driving vehicle tested in the Connected City. The ‘city of the future’ is being developed by Metro Development Group in partnership with Pasco County.(Courtesy of B2 Communications)

The first public hearing on Jan. 24 offered a review of the project and an opportunity for public comment.

Pasco County and Metro Development Group are partnering on a 10-year pilot project, authorized by state law. About 7,800 acres were set aside for development projects that encourage advanced technology and high-wage jobs.

The area is bordered by Interstate 75, State Road 52 and Curley and Overpass roads.

Metro is the first to offer a development project for the area. More developers are expected to take part in Connected City in the future.

“This project arguably is one of the leading technology designs in the country right now,” said Kris Hughes, the county’s planning and development administrator. “It sets new standards for physical development. It makes Pasco highly competitive and attractive as a place to live and work.”

Several people spoke during public comment on Jan. 24. Most supported Connected City.

“I feel the benefits outweigh the concerns brought up,” said resident Dawn Newsome. “I’m excited to see the opportunities that Connected City offers us.”

Too many younger Pasco residents leave home to find good-paying jobs, but that could change with Connected City, she said.

Hope Allen, president of The Greater Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce, offered a letter of support from the chamber’s board. She said the project would bring jobs, new housing, economic development and entrepreneurship to Pasco.

Resident Jennifer McCarthy had concerns about property rights of people who have lived in the area for generations. She also worried about increasing traffic congestion.

At build-out in 50 years, Connected City is expected to have a population of about 96,000 residents, living in about 37,000 homes and apartments. About 7.2 million square feet of space will be available for job creation.

“At best, Connected City is going to generate jobs that aren’t just retail and construction,” McCarthy said. “At worst, it adds to the urban sprawl that already plagues the area.”

During a video presentation, Metro developers provided new details on their plans.

A groundbreaking for the manmade Crystal Lagoon at Epperson Ranch will be on Feb. 2. The mixed-use, master-planned community is within Connected City boundaries.

The 7-acre lagoon, with crystal blue waters, is creating a buzz with companies that want to locate within the Epperson community, said Kartik Goyani, vice president of operations with Metro.

To meet demand, Metro now is planning a second and larger lagoon on the northern portion of the site, Goyani said.

Metro previously announced partnerships with Saint Leo University for an education center within Connected City. In addition, Florida Hospital and Tampa General Hospital plan to set up a new medical partnership in Connected City.

Meridian Autonomous Systems will provide support for self-driving and electrical vehicles.

“We are going to be at the forefront of this technology,” Goyani said.

Metro also is developing technology to operate street lights on solar and wind power.

The Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI) will partner with Metro to integrate learning activities into Connected City. Goyani also said the nonprofit is planning a $1 million exhibit on Connected City in 2017.

And, job creation already is coming into focus.

On Jan. 30, Metro Places had a job fair at Pasco-Hernando State College where more than 400 jobs were available.

“We hope to make this an annual event,” Goyani said.

Published February 1, 2017

Connected City plans taking shape

Metro Development Group is finalizing its team of partners for what is billed as “the city of the future.”

Florida Hospital and Tampa General will be setting up a new medical partnership in the Connected City called West Florida Health.

Meridian Autonomous Systems will be providing self-driving and electrical vehicles.

And, Saint Leo University will be creating a new education center.

Kris Hughes, Pasco County’s planning and development administrator (standing), addressed county commissioners during workshop on Connected City.
(Courtesy of Richard K. Riley)

Connected City is a master-planned community in eastern Pasco County that promises the fastest Internet and WiFi speeds in the nation.

Over a year and a half, Metro developers and Pasco County have fashioned a public/private partnership for a 10-year pilot project, authorized by state law.

It sweeps in about 7,800 acres bordered by Interstate 75, State Road 52, State Road 54 and Curley and Overpass roads. Metro controls about 35 percent of land targeted for development.

On Jan. 17, Metro put its partners on display at a workshop for Pasco County commissioners.

Six speakers outlined plans to embed state-of-the-art technology into every feature of Metro’s initial development within Connected City.

“It’s all about trying to encourage entrepreneurship in the field of technology, and high-wage jobs in Pasco County,” said Kris Hughes, the county’s planning and development administrator.

During the presentation, both Metro and county officials acknowledged some details on the oversight of Connected City remain a work-in-progress.

County commissioners agreed to jettison a proposed special management committee. Its seven members, including three people appointed by Metro, would have replaced the usual pre-approval route through the county’s development review committee and planning commission.

“I didn’t really like that setup,” said Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano. “I think it’s probably good for us not having the committee.”

Pasco County Chairman Mike Moore suggested a future workshop to reconsider how to make the review process work fairly for everyone.

However, land use attorney Joel Tew noted that the state, in crafting the pilot program, had mandated an expedited review process for Connected City.

“I do think we’ll get in trouble if we don’t set up a new development review board,” Tew said.

The first public hearing for Connected City was scheduled for Jan. 24, after The Laker/Lutz News press deadline.

The final public hearing is scheduled for Feb. 7.

Metro currently is constructing its first community within Connected City at Epperson Ranch, at Overpass and Curley roads.

A 7-acre, manmade Crystal Lagoon will be built there, along with thousands of homes, a town center, offices and retail.

Plans for the wellness district, operated by Florida Hospital and Tampa General, include advanced research facilities, an innovation center, and a medical hospital with a med-spa and a health and performance institute, according to details included in a news release.

Details and a name for the health care campus will be released at a later date.

“Our goal is to change the way we deliver care,” said Gino Casanova, director of administrative and governmental affairs at Florida Hospital.

Other Connected City partners include The Broadband Group and the nonprofit US Ignite.

“We’re looking forward to the growth and development of this project,” said Ed Dadez, vice president of continuing education and student services at Saint Leo University.

The university already operates about 40 education centers in seven states, Dadez said.

“An education center is like a small college,” he said. “Saint Leo would be the anchor institution on site (at Connected City).”

Matthew Lesh, Meridian’s chief commercial officer, said his company focuses on high-tech solutions for the development of self-driving and electrical vehicles, as well as robotics and automation.

For instance, Meridian did programming for Olli, a self-driving shuttle from Local Motors.

Asked if Meridian would bring manufacturing jobs to Pasco, Lesh said, “I think we’re wide open to that.”

Published January 25, 2017