WESLEY CHAPEL — Time was, Al Ruechel — the Bay News 9 anchor and, in a distant lifetime, youth soccer coach — said the other night, teams seeking opponents in Pasco looked only west and way, way east, because the middle of the county — though at the time a pleasant enough drive — was a whole lot of nothing.
Which, it bears briefly noting, is exactly how James “Wiregrass” Porter liked it.
Back here in the 21st Century, heirs of the legendary rancher have pared off portions of their sprawling acreage, encouraging eruptions of civilization: master-planned suburbs, regionally significant shopping malls, a high school, a hospital, no small number of office parks and, nearing completion, a community college campus.
Ruechel extolled the collective grandeur of these developments as master of ceremonies when the Pasco Economic Development Council gathered at Saddlebrook Resort to distribute industry awards for the 27th time Wednesday night. Then the organizers started announcing the winners — via a slick, 1080p recording projected on twin big screens — making abundantly clear the truth of what the guest host had merely hinted at.
When the last of the event’s eight award-winners had crossed the stage to collect their engraved crystal trophies, the conspicuously centralized shift in Pasco’s economic center of gravity had been acknowledged in plain terms. Four of the enterprises cited have Wesley Chapel zip codes; a fifth does business in the disputed Land O’ Chapel triangle defined by Interstate 75, State Road 56 and County Road 54; and only one punches a time clock west of Little Road.
Even the Almighty appears to have noticed. Summoned to deliver the invocation, Commissioner Henry Wilson’s instruction to the 600 diners — “Let’s bow our heads” — was met by a thunderclap that shook the building.
Some of what’s happening here, indisputably, is preparation meeting opportunity. Cradling the award for Special Recognition, The Shops of Wiregrass General Manager Greg Lenners wasn’t gloating, exactly — he’s far too polite — when he said, “We knew our market.” Just ahead of the 2008 grand opening, “Lots of people said, ‘You’re building a shopping mall ... in this economy?’ But we’ve had measurable growth every year, and it just keeps getting better.”
For instance, approaching its sixth Christmas shopping season, the mall is at 93 percent of capacity, or a solid four points above the industry standard for “healthy.” And though he declined to make news — that was reserved for Port Washington, N.Y.-based Pall Corp.’s consolidation of its aerospace operations at its Ridge Road facility — Lenners hinted about optimism over negotiations with other “brand name” retailers.
Says Lenners, “Cool stuff is happening.”
Especially in Wesley Chapel, where the honors for technology (Caresync, managers of an electronic medical records app), light industry (Sign-A-Rama) and special contribution (Florida Hospital You-Know-Where) post their colors.
Speaking of which, flying flags is much of what J.T.D. Enterprises, relocated to Land O’ Chapel from a Detroit suburb in March and fashioners of telescoping tubular devices, facilitates. Also stunningly reliable golf ball retrievers such as the one in the Jackson bag.
All this activity and more — much of it in the projection stage, evidently, and not all of it limited to central Pasco — has put a fresh spring in the step of PEDC President John Hagen, who has seen second-quarter doldrums reversed in a surge of summer vitality.
A pause followed the 2012 election, Hagen says, while business owners tussled with, among other things, sequestration and looming implementation of Obamacare. “There was confusion,” Hagen says, “but once people got things figured out, things started to move.” Now, come hell or tapering by the Federal Reserve, Hagen is all tailwinds and rising tides. Entrepreneurial Pasco “is getting a lift here; next year should be a great year.”
Knock wood that the greatness isn’t limited to any particular region.