WESLEY CHAPEL — They moved in January, leaving Cary, North Carolina, to be closer to family, to live near a big city but not too close, and to make the change to a good school district before their two girls got too entrenched in kindergarten and first-grade classes.
Brian and Courtney Wine did what roughly 10,000 people a year are doing — setting up house in one of the dozens of subdivisions and apartment communities sprouting up in Pasco County, most just over the line from Hillsborough County, another area booming with commercial and residential development.
“We loved the proximity,” said Courtney Wine, a new resident of the Union Park development in Wesley Chapel. “It gets us far enough out of the hubbub of the crazy traffic and all that business of a city, but it still gives you the proximity to college life, to culture.”
What is fueling such growth in the area? Is it the economic recovery in Hillsborough and Tampa, with the urban area spreading north over the county line? Is it affordability as Tampa land prices skyrocket and Pinellas County remains largely built out? Is it the attraction of a roomy new family home with a big yard versus urban living?
“It’s probably a combination of all those things,” said Marvin Rose, longtime Tampa Bay area housing market tracker. But he and other real estate analysts are watching for the south Pasco area to emerge from its reputation as Tampa’s “bedroom community” to become a self-sustaining, jobs-providing, live-work-play center of its own.
Bill Eshenbaugh, a local land broker and publisher of the Eshenbaugh Report on local trends and listings, compares the Wiregrass area of south Pasco to the Carillon-Feather Sound area where the Howard Frankland Bridge meets Pinellas County — a once-barren cow pasture now bustling with homes, offices, businesses and apartments.
“I think you’ll find, for example, that on the eastern end of (State Road) 56, there’s an opportunity to live, work and play with (The Shops at Wiregrass’) success,” Eshenbaugh said. “It’s such a great location; there’s so much development around it. It’s a million-square-foot mall — life is perfect. Starbucks has arrived. McDonald’s is there, and now the hospital shows up. A community college campus. You can ride your bike from your apartment or town house, and if Raymond James (a long-planned financial center) goes in there, they have reached nirvana.
“You can live in the Wiregrass area and only have to go to Tampa if you want to go to a Bucs game, to Bern’s (Steak House) or to the airport,” he said.
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Richard Gehring, Pasco County’s strategic policy administrator, said the county’s southern corridor already has a population of about 125,000 people. In 15 years, that number is expected to be 320,000.
“This is our urban corridor,” he said. And where you have rooftops, retail follows. “There is dirt flying all the way from Little Road to U.S. 301.”
Wesley Chapel and the S.R. 56 interchange has become the economic engine for the county. The new Tampa Premium Outlets is racing toward its opening Oct. 29.
The developer, Simon Properties, controls 57 acres and less than half of the 1.1 million square feet of commercial entitlements approved for the Cypress Creek Town Center development, which spans both sides of S.R. 56.
“The outlet mall does a couple of things for us: It’s going to generate a heck of a lot of sales tax, and it’s going to employ people,” said John Hagen, director of the Pasco Economic Development Council.
Even though the mall technically isn’t in Tampa, Hagen doesn’t have a problem with the name. “It draws people into thinking of us as part of the Tampa region,” he said. “I’d rather be in a suburb of Tampa than in a suburb of Detroit.”
Just east of Interstate 75, developer Gordie Zimmermann is building a $20 million ice skating facility, and a new hotel is in the works next door.
“We did a study of the state of Florida for market feasibility, and it really pointed us to Wesley Chapel as one of the best locations in the state of Florida,” Zimmermann said. “It has the demographics, the highway access, and the income per household is one of the highest in Florida. Everything just fell together for us.”
The sports facility signed a naming rights deal with another key player in the region: Florida Hospital. The nonprofit hospital, which opened its Wesley Chapel facility in 2012, will start construction this summer on a $78 million expansion that will nearly double the number of patient rooms, operating rooms and emergency suites. The hospital anchors a medical campus at Wiregrass Ranch that also will be home to a new $24 million Florida Medical Clinic.
All of those factors contributed to the decision by Forest City, original developer of The Shops at Wiregrass, to pull the trigger on a second phase of the mall.
Project manager Abbas Hassan said the sales and the performance of the mall have improved every year since it opened. “Each year we look at potential opportunities, and this rose to the top for commercial potential.”
Forest City is in preliminary design for a “complementary expansion” that will include an additional 200,000 square feet of retail and 248 apartments.
“When you see a lot of other decision-makers in entertainment and education and retail are also growing — that validates our decision to grow our retail,” Hassan said.
Auto dealers have gravitated to the area, too. Mercedes-Benz of Wesley Chapel opened a $17 million dealership on S.R. 56 just east of the I-75 interchange, and auto magnate Scott Fink is building a Chevrolet dealership on Wesley Chapel Boulevard. Fink also plans to put a Volkswagen dealership on S.R. 56.
Hagen said Fink, who owns the nation’s most successful Hyundai dealership, proved Pasco could be a regional destination for car buyers. “If you told someone 10 years ago that Pasco would have a Mercedes dealership, they would have said it was like one in a trillion chance. But here it is. A lot of people with smart money are coming in here.”
In the past year, two huge new luxury apartment complexes were completed in Trinity and Wesley Chapel. Combined, they represent a $40 million investment. “The apartment market has been pretty robust nationally,” Hagen said. “They want to be where the hot spots are. We’re seeing really nice apartment buildings going up.”
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But all of the new investment, all of the expensive new homes won’t help southern Pasco shed its bedroom community reputation until it translates into true job creation. Today, roughly 85,000 Pasco residents leave the county to go to work.
“You have to have the jobs. You can’t just have everyone going somewhere else to work,” said Barbara Caldwell, department chairwoman of accounting, finance and economics at Saint Leo University. “You don’t want to become saturated with retail.”
The third piece of the puzzle is industry, and Pasco still can’t compete with its neighbors to the south despite having an abundance of land and an educated workforce. Even with the explosive growth of the past few years, the county still struggles to remain solvent because 75 percent of its tax base is residential. “Ideally, you want a 50-50 split between residential and nonresidential uses,” Gehring said.
Raymond James Financial is planning a massive corporate campus, 1 million square feet, for Wiregrass Ranch, but that project is years away.
County Commissioner Kathryn Starkey, who sits on the Tampa Bay Partnership board, said getting officials from Hillsborough and Pinellas to include Pasco County in their regional development efforts has been frustrating. The development commissions for those counties have led trade missions to Chile and Brazil — and have one planned this year for Canada — but they won’t allow Pasco to participate.
“They think we’re trying to steal business away from them,” Starkey said, noting that Pasco has developed a reputation for being especially aggressive.
“Everyone feels pressure to grow their economy, but if we’re trying to think regionally, we have to celebrate each other’s successes,” she said. “I’m always ecstatic when I hear of a really good company moving to Tampa or to Pinellas.”
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Real estate trackers say that at a certain point, residential development begins to follow commercial construction. Rose, former publisher of the Rose Residential Report, said construction of the Tampa Premium Outlet “will probably take (south Pasco) over that critical mass.”
The evidence is in a slew of residential developments active in the area.
East of The Shops at Wiregrass, Schickedanz Group’s Wyndfields community is in the permitting stage, and construction continues on homes at Metro Development Group’s Union Park. Near the outlet mall-ice center-hospital nexus, Standard Pacific Homes’ Estancia community has entered its second phase.
“The relative maturity of New Tampa ... combined with the coming of S.R. 56 as a major east-west traffic route, I believe those factors are driving the optimistic view of the growth potential,” said Wally Schickedanz. “This is one man’s opinion, but I don’t think it’s going to be exclusively a bedroom corridor.”
Greg Singleton of Metro Development said retail, banks, restaurants, the malls and improvements to S.R. 56 and the I-75 interchange “has been great for us.”
Enough to make south Pasco a self-sustaining community?
“Absolutely,” Singleton said. “It’s almost there now.”
Bexley Ranch is under construction along the Suncoast Parkway, as is Long Lake Ranch just east of the parkway. Farther north, two huge developments — Cannon Ranch and Epperson Ranch — are in permitting, and Connerton has rebounded with record sales.
Adam Krug, senior managing vice president for Hayman Woods, which is developing Connerton, echoed Singleton in saying Pasco is “absolutely” weaning itself from its dependence on the Tampa metro area.
“It’s very difficult to forecast when that will happen, but clearly the infrastructure is there for that, the plans are there for that, and Connerton is a good example of that.”
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The south Pasco scenario could be seen as eerily reminiscent of the early 2000s, when developers snapped up the area’s ranches and promised mile after mile of gaudy subdivisions. With the burst of the housing bubble and the collapse of the economy, the sites became known as “ghost subdivisions,” their model homes standing empty, their sidewalks leading nowhere, their lawns overgrown.
Real-estate experts blame much of the collapse of the 2000s on undisciplined lending policies and home-flippers taking advantage of the easy mortgages. Singleton, the Union Park developer, said the Tampa Bay area is seeing in the area of 6,500 to 7,000 home starts a year — nowhere near the 22,000 to 25,000 in the bubble years.
“There’s no unbridled exuberance among homebuilders,” said Eshenbaugh, the land broker and newsletter publisher. “They’re very cautious, and I think that’s a good thing that we’re not getting carried away.”
South Pasco developers, meanwhile, don’t seem to be impressed with calls for housing geared toward “millennials,” those who reached young adulthood in the early 2000s and are expected to become the biggest segment of the U.S. population.
Studies have shown that millennials want to live close to work, want to be in walking environments, and don’t necessarily favor larger homes.
Not an issue, say Pasco real estate watchers.
“It’s great when you’re young and single to live in an urban environment,” said Eshenbaugh. “Add a spouse, add a child or two to the occasion, and voila, suddenly you’re suburbanites.”
Even Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, local champion of urban living, acknowledges suburban life isn’t going away.
“There’s always going to be a demand for subdivision tract housing,” Buckhorn said. “There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s historically been the American dream. That’s fine when the development patterns keep up with infrastructure and investment.”
Count the Wines among those opting for that dream. With dad Brian working from home as a statistical software programmer, walking or commuting to work isn’t an issue. The Union Park community includes UltraFi, the fastest Internet and WiFi speeds in the nation.
Amenities include a resort-style pool, dog park and miles of trails where the Wines’ two girls can bike safely.
“It was a good choice for us,” Courtney Wine said. “We did a lot of research on the area before we moved here. Making such a big move, it was a very important thing for all four of us to be happy. Wesley Chapel has been a great choice for us.”