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Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Experts back to tell us ... what we know already

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Published:   |   Updated: October 9, 2013 at 12:53 AM

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Folks from the Urban Land Institute – Washington-based consultants whose last visit spawned Pasco County’s mobility fee – are back, and only the being to whom coaches may not publicly pray knows what they’ll find this time around.

We know this much: Since receiving a withering report produced by ULI’s visit in 2008 that could have been subtitled, “OMG, It’s Worse Than We Thought,” Pasco’s policy makers have achieved less, not more, of the consultants’ recommendations. And while we haven’t sicced a truth-detector on her, we know then-county-commission-candidate Kathryn Starkey was exaggerating only slightly when she claimed, about this time last year, the ULI “study outlines specific things we can do now – we haven’t done any of them.”

Listen, Pasco’s mobility-fee ordinance, designed to restrict growth to within established transportation corridors, is not nothing ... as our libertarian neighbors are quick to point out. Nor was slotting development into designated areas ULI’s chief concern.

Instead, consultants lamented, chiefly, the county’s adversarial relationship with the business community. In short, Pasco made starting, expanding or relocating an existing business an uphill battle. County bureaucrats were dug in and kept well-supplied by an administration that seemed to keep permits in the same sort of safe Harry Winston reserves for Oscar-night jewels.

In short, Pasco shoveled a pile of taxpayer dollars into the ULI furnace to be told exactly what virtually every candidate for county commission has being saying on the campaign trail for at least the last 15 years: The same county that claims it wants to break free of its bedroom community image is routinely and willfully hostile to economic growth.

Or was, anyway. The animating impediment to a friendlier public-private courtship hereabouts entered a well-earned retirement last spring. We don’t have John Gallagher, the human version of a sandbag wall, to pin the blame on anymore.

And, in Gallagher’s defense, the county closed a handful of important deals in the years since ULI excoriated Pasco, including packages luring investment hotshots T. Rowe Price and Raymond James, although each planned campus remains relegated to artist’s renderings.

On the other hand, you have to wonder why, in the deals Hillsborough County struck with Bass Pro Shops and (evidently) Amazon, Pasco didn’t get so much as a sniff of the action. Five years ago, ULI told the county its commercially zoned land was ill-prepared to receive projects of substance, and there’s scant evidence to believe that has changed.

Still, Pasco’s land-use plan has been reformulated to establish development that is more coherent and consistent than provided by its predecessor. Even now, staffers are rolling out guidelines for areas identified as future “urbanized” zones, the latest iteration of Gallagher’s late-career epiphany regarding growth via town centers. And developers – particularly those with plans well along the approval pipeline – are swooning.

Meanwhile, your aforementioned libertarian neighbors feel the boot heel of the statists bending free people to the will of “experts.”

Such is the price of striving to become a premier county (even if you don’t remember signing up for the ride).

So the serious folks from ULI are among us again, and attention must be paid, not simply because one of the co-chairmen (who is not the Amazing Kreskin) is described as “a recognized thought leader,” but because policy makers tend to listen to them, even if they’re saying many of the same things those same policy makers used to say when they were on the stump.

It’s that whole problem with prophets in their own country thing all over again.

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