Shops stand in way of auto mall
By JAMES THORNER, Times Staff Writer
WESLEY CHAPEL -- Oakley Plaza, a 90-acre auto mall proposed for the western edge of Interstate 75, promises oodles of goodies for Pasco County: millions of dollars in yearly taxes and 1,800 permanent jobs, most paying between $30,000 and $50,000.
But progress comes with a price. To make it possible to reach the auto dealership property, landowner Thomas Oakley and auto mall developer Metropolitan Properties Inc. want to slice a road through a shopping center in Wesley Chapel.
The casualties could include about 10 businesses in Quail Hollow Plaza north of State Road 54. Shops there include Quail Hollow Animal Hospital, All About Kids clothing store, Peg's Exotic Pets and Crown Jewelry and Pawn, all of which lease space from the Clearwater owner.
"It would require doing away with that shopping center," said Georgianne Ratliff, the senior planner on the auto mall project. "That is the one structure that would not work."
Ratliff proposes a northward extension of Gateway Boulevard, which intersects SR 54 from the Saddlebrook Corporate Center property to the south. Gateway would cut northeast until it merged with Oakley Boulevard.
Oakley Boulevard already extends near the mall property, but its junction with SR 54 is a tangle of traffic.
Lambasted for giving a sweetheart deal, Pasco paid the Oakley family $450,000 for Oakley Boulevard in the mid 1990s. It was the first time the county bought a private road. In most cases, road owners donate them to avoid the cost of repairs.
According to the county's Growth Management Department, developers suggest expanding Gateway and Oakley in exchange for a break on the $4-million in transportation impact fees they would owe the county. The proposal, however, remains a point of contention.
Another possible sticking point is Quail Hollow Plaza, which sits in Gateway's proposed path. The Clearwater owner, Jashlock Inc., bought the shopping center for $725,000 in 1996.
It's showing its age after 20 years. Its wood shingle roof is shedding its turquoise paint. A recent tenant is an aromatherapy shop that county officials contend sells more than scents. A restaurant next door, Peacock's barbecue, has stood empty for a year.
Shopping center owner Harshad Patel couldn't be reached for comment. But one of his tenants, Peg Gilley, owner of Peg's Exotic Pets, hopes the road misses her building, which sits on the eastern edge of the property.
"I would not want to switch. I like this spot. I've been here six years. My customers know it," Gilley said. "Most people don't want exotic pets in their buildings, especially when they hear you sell snakes."
Yet there's no disputing that the auto mall project -- which would include 300 apartments housing about 700 people -- needs a road to handle thousands of daily car trips.
The mall would be Metropolitan Properties' second big Florida venture. The Birmingham, Ala.-based company opened the $20-million Daytona International Auto Mall on Interstate 95 last year with hopes to expand to 10 dealerships serving 17,000 customers a day.
Wesley Chapel could get the same type of mall, a project Ratliff praised as an economic bonanza, singling out the taxes and relatively high paying jobs.
"It's sales jobs. It's mechanics. Those are very high-tech folks, and they make a lot of money," she said.
-James Thorner covers growth and development in Pasco County. He can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4613. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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