LUTZ - In February, auto magnate Larry Morgan told a ballroom full of movers and shakers he was going to bring a lot of jobs to Pasco County.
Now he is ready to make good on that promise. Last week, Morgan learned he would get a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers clearing the way for a $15 million expansion at his Compark 75 industrial park.
Two new buildings totaling nearly 135,000 square feet will be the first major industrial buildings to go up in Pasco County since the recession hit. Morgan said Pasco County has building permits waiting for him as soon as he gets a signed permit from the corps.
"We hope to be moving some dirt out there pretty quickly," he said. "I think 30 days is reasonable now that we got the Army Corps issue resolved. Financing is not an obstacle. We have our own construction firm, and they're ready to go."
Morgan knows something about creating jobs. Over 35 years, he grew his tire company from 35 stores into Tires Plus, a national chain with 600 stores, 8,500 employees and $1 billion a year in sales. He sold the company to Firestone in 2000 and four years later started Morgan Auto Group, which now operates a dozen car dealerships.
Morgan bought Compark 75 in 2005 for $6.2 million. The 220-acre complex stretches from Wesley Chapel Boulevard to Interstate 75 at the midpoint between State roads 54 and 56. About half of the property is wetlands and other nature preserves, which is why he needed a corps permit to build an entryway a few hundred feet north of the existing entrance.
The permit requires a little more than an acre of wetland mitigation.
"The corps was stretching this out a bit," Morgan said. "We're happy to get the permit so we can get out there and build us some nice buildings."
John Hagan, chairman of the Pasco Economic Development Council, said these spec buildings are exactly what Pasco County needs.
"It's really important because we get inquiries all the time from people looking for space - as opposed to land," he said. "Pasco County has a tremendous amount of land, but we don't have many buildings that are new and vacant."
The development council has been missing opportunities because, until now, nobody was willing to spend the money on a speculative industrial building. And Pasco will need millions of square feet of office and industrial space in the next decade. "We've been pretty forceful in saying, 'Hey, let's get this done,'?" Hagan said.
Melanie Kendrick, Pasco County's economic development planner, said she hoped other landowners and developers would take note.
"I'm really hoping it creates a ripple effect with other property owners," she said. "This should be a wake-up call. I'm so ecstatic that a private enterprise is stepping up to the plate and willing to take this risk. It is a sizable chunk of change."
Hagan said Morgan's timing is impeccable, especially because the county has moved to a mobility fee system that charges zero transportation impact fees for industrial development.
"As we're coming out of the recession and things are turning around, now is the time to do it," he said. "I saw their initial plans and I got really excited about it, personally."
Morgan agreed: "The economy's turning around, and we think our property is in the catbird seat."