ST. LEO — Even before he set out on a countywide bus tour, transportation planner Bill Lawrence recognized that Pasco County had made tremendous progress in the five years since he first served on a panel for the Urban Land Institute.
Lawrence, who is from Providence, R.I., is one of two ULI panelists making a return visit to Pasco County. He said the drive from the airport to his hotel on State Road 54 “was pretty eye-opening.”
“The first thing I noticed was the two-lane road going out to Saddlebrook was now a six-lane freeway with development all around,” he said.
The 2008 ULI visit exposed the county’s planning failures and a government that lagged behind the rest of the Tampa Bay region. “The last time you were here, we were pretty isolated body that didn’t interact with neighboring counties,” said Richard Gehring, planning and growth administrator for the county.
The first report ended up being a seminal moment that led to a new planning philosophy focused on bringing high-paying jobs to Pasco — not just expensive subdivisions. Since the initial report, commissioners adopted a new land development code, implemented mobility fees and adopted its first strategic plan.
This week’s return visit gives elected officials and staff a chance to chart a course for the future. The panel’s chairman, award-winning planner John Knott specializes in urban redevelopment and is best known for transforming Baltimore’s Inner Harbor district. He also leads the team that is redeveloping the closed Naval base in North Charleston, S.C. He served on the panel for Hillsborough County, and his daughter lives in Dunedin, so he is familiar with the Tampa Bay area.
Knott, said the beauty of the ULI process is that it brings together experts with diverse backgrounds and opinions. “We’re totally objective,” Knott said. “We’re volunteers — we’re giving of our time. Our job is to see what is the problem and come up with the solution.”
Commissioners have asked for direction in a number areas:
• How to get developers to “buy in” to building more compact, urban projects along S.R. 54 — a corridor that has always attracted suburban sprawl?
• How to prioritize and incentivize redevelopment of the U.S. 19 corridor?
• How to set spending priorities for the $45 million for the Penny For Pasco funds that will be collected over the next decade and earmarked for economic development?
• As the county population grows from 500,000 to 1 million, what type of cultural amenities are needed to create a thriving community?
Panelists spent two days touring the county and interviewing more than 100 local residents and business owners and will present their recommendations Friday at 8 a.m. in the West Pasco Government Center. The final report will be released about a month later.