ULI’s Advisory Services panel recommendations for Pasco County, Florida, are fast becoming a blueprint for change. The report on those recommendations lists three keys to success, says panel coordinator Alex Rose, senior vice president of development and asset management for Continental Development Corp. in El Segundo, California.
Pasco County needed help , and its leaders knew it. Pasco County, perched on the northern end of the Tampa Bay metropolitan area, has a classic case of suburban sprawl. The county, which once consisted mostly of miles and miles of pasture, now has 471,000 residents and is predicted to double in population in the next 25 years.
“I think it’s clear that if we don’t do something, traffic is going to become a major hindrance to our quality of life and to our growth,” says Pasco County administrator John Gallagher, a key driver in embracing the ULI recommendations.
Adding to the issues was a county staff that was somewhat disorganized and not accustomed to moving quickly and efficiently. County leadership—both staff and elected officials—knew problems existed, and this self-awareness was a key first step. Since the 2008 report was embraced by the county leadership, chief assistant county administrator Michelle Baker has used everything from forming process-improvement teams to hiring key new leaders to make workers more aggressive and to get staff members out of their silos and focus on working together.
This new spirit of cooperation also extended to the Pasco Economic Development Council (PEDC), a cosponsor of the panel that had worked closely with the county to land a major operations center for T. Rowe Price. The company has purchased 94 acres (38 ha) in the county for a facility envisioned to accommodate as many as 1,600 workers over the next decade. “A coup like this would not have been possible without a faster-moving, more responsive county organization,” says John Hagen, president/CEO of the PEDC.
The ULI report pulled no punches in laying out an aggressive vision for future growth and was specific in laying out actions to be taken. Research for the report first focused on how economic development efforts should dovetail with land use planning. The panel quickly saw that Pasco has five distinct market areas, and each needed a vision to attract jobs and create a land use strategy that would make sense for that specific area.
“This was in sharp contrast to the ‘go find the big user and plop them down wherever’ approach that was being used,” says Rose. This new thinking, tied to consideration of such factors as traffic flows and infrastructure needs, was followed by recommendations to streamline the development review process.
The land planning recommendations center on creating three areas—along transportation corridors in the west, central, and eastern sections of the county—that would allow higher densities, forming hubs for better transportation options.
“Transportation is critical for the county’s future,” says Richard Gehring, Pasco County growth management administrator and a member of the ULI Tampa Bay advisory board. Ambitious plans taking shape in west-central Florida revolve around creating a light-rail system that can tie into the high-speed rail to be built between Tampa and Orlando. Pasco County could benefit by making the commute easier for the 75,000 people who leave the county each morning to spend their workdays in nearby cities such as Tampa, Clearwater, and St. Petersburg.
“We talk about a three-legged stool for the county’s future, and the ULI recommendations reflected that,” Gehring says. “Transportation, economic development, and land use planning all must play a role in growth, or it won’t work.”
ULI involvement did not stop with delivery of the report . Instead, the institute is providing county officials with support and a sounding board as they turn the recommendations into reality. A special advisory committee formed by ULI Tampa Bay has advised Pasco County since the report was delivered two years ago; its creation was fostered by ULI Tampa Bay chair Stewart Gibbons. Gibbons is a key leader in Pasco through his chairmanship of the PEDC board from 2007 to 2009, and through his role with CoastOak Group, the developer behind Connerton, a 4,800-acre (1,950-ha) mixed-use, master-planned community in Pasco County.
“Having Stew right there in Pasco to serve as a bridge to the ULI district council has been a major factor in the success of that project,” says Rose. This type of local follow-up program is becoming more common, he says, citing examples in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.
For Gibbons, the project shows how ULI can provide value in the communities where its leaders live and work. In addition to making needed internal changes, the county has approved significant changes to its land use plan, focusing on the concept of using higher densities in certain geographic areas. “These are land use changes done with input from the private sector, which makes it very real-world,” says Bruce Erhardt, a Cushman & Wakefield land broker who is leading ULI Tampa Bay’s Pasco County advisory committee.
As of this fall, those changes were being considered for approval by the Florida Department of Community Affairs. “This aggressive type of density planning is very unusual for Florida, and some folks in Tallahassee [the state capital] aren’t sure whether the law allows for it,” says Gallagher. “Up to now, rules about allowing higher densities have basically applied to areas that already had high densities. Our idea—to create high-density areas where there is little density now—is both ahead of the curve and very out of the norm.”
Gallagher and other Pasco leaders are hoping the state signs off on the land use changes soon, which would help focus economic development efforts. With a more specific land use strategy in place, Hagen and his staff can better direct corporate prospects to different geographic areas.
For Gallagher, who has run the county since 1982, the results of the ULI exercise have been nothing short of life changing. “The ability to look at our blemishes has allowed us to create a plan to make this county better for our residents and their children in the future,” he says. “What a great legacy that would be.”