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    County's focus turns to redevelopment

    As a software maker weighs a move to Pasco, Pinellas leaders will huddle to form a plan on retaining businesses.

    By MICHAEL SANDLER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published December 9, 2002


    Some might have been surprised to learn last week that a Palm Harbor software company might move to Pasco County.

    But not Richard Gehring. He might have predicted the move.

    "It's a poster-child issue," said Gehring, a local planning consultant who is serving as the interim mayor of Dunedin.

    Gehring knows the deal in Pinellas County. There is hardly any vacant land left worth hauling a crane to. SCC Soft Computer, a company developing software for the health care industry, needs more space for its headquarters.

    Put those trends together, and the result could be that 450 high-paying jobs will move north on U.S. 19 -- out of Pinellas County.

    Gehring and a cadre of consultants and public officials want to stop such moves by convincing the Pinellas community of 24 cities and its county government that redevelopment is worth their cooperation and consensus.

    Otherwise, he fears, more high-tech jobs may travel north -- to Pasco, Hernando and beyond.

    "Here was somebody who needed to grow," said Gehring. "That's exactly what we're talking about."

    This week Gehring will lead a summit on redevelopment opportunities for the Pinellas Community at the Harborview Center in Clearwater.

    The summit, which will be Thursday and Friday, is open to the public. Organizers are asking people to register before showing up.

    Featured speakers include Nancy Graham, the former mayor of West Palm Beach, and Steve Seibert, outgoing secretary for the state's Department of Community Affairs.

    But the real work may be found during the panel discussions that follow. At those, public officials and private developers will focus on defining redevelopment opportunities.

    That might not be an easy task. Pinellas County is unique, with 24 municipalities and the county government. That means 25 different plans.

    Largo is trying to figure out how to revive its downtown and redevelop aging mobile home parks without displacing hundreds of residents.

    St. Petersburg, which condemned blocks of old retail shops and turned them into the BayWalk shopping plaza, is capitalizing on the windfall with a reinvented downtown that continues to evolve into one of the area's top destinations for nightlife.

    What they share is a common goal: maintaining Pinellas County's reputation as an attractive place to live and work.

    Dave Healy, executive director for the Pinellas Planning Council, said that requires, among many factors, keeping high-paying jobs and a diversified housing stock.

    Healy said that while the county enjoyed a prosperous economy the past 10 years, an ominous sign forecasts trouble.

    Collectively, only about 5 percent of the county's land is available for development. That does not allow very much room to grow. Factor in that one-third of the houses are more than 40 years old, and he has concerns about the future.

    "We recognize some cities are well on their way," Healy said. "Unless we had a vision, we would have to go to each city and say they have to retool or rethink (their plan)."

    The summit grew out of a partnership between the county's Economic Development Department and the Pinellas Planning Council, which comprises city, county and school board officials.

    Those groups hired Gehring in August, paying his Prime Interests consulting firm $137,000 to organize the summit and follow up with conclusions to help them move forward.

    "Our growth dilemma is the same as it is for Largo, for Gulfport or Clearwater," said Ron Barton, director of economic development for the city of St. Petersburg. "We all face the same issues. How do we creatively deal with the redevelopment and reuse of our land?"

    One person Gehring hopes can help them to see the broader picture is Bill Fruth, who will speak at the summit.

    Gehring hired the Palm City economic consultant to analyze the county's employment condition and compare it with that of other areas.

    Fruth also suggested goals aimed at retaining and attracting high-paying jobs to keep the economy strong in the future.

    He uses a balloon filled with air to represent a strong economy. But when it reaches build out, the air starts seeping out.

    "You continuously have to put pressure on the balloon," Fruth said. Otherwise, he said, it will deflate when land is scarce. Companies that want to expand see no alternative but to leave.

    "They will go to Pasco, or Atlanta," Fruth said.

    He should know. He has been hired as a consultant in 28 states by various governments, including Pasco County. In 2001, he helped the county develop goals to diversify the local economy. One of his recommendations was to woo companies that serve the health care industry.

    That's exactly what Pasco would gain by acquiring SCC Soft Computer Company.

    Now Fruth is taking his advice to Pinellas County, where officials want stop the jobs from moving away.

    "That's part of the issue with build out," Healy said. "Part of his finding is that very thing. We are going to be looking at companies that are in need of expansion and whether we have the ability to accommodate them. If we have the land area, that will allow them to expand."

    But it's about more than just retaining and attracting jobs.

    County Commissioner Karen Seel said she wanted to make Pinellas a place where people want to live.

    Seel has helped organize and promote the redevelopment summit. She wants leaders to ask questions such as whether they want a drugstore on every corner.

    She wants them to consider making pedestrian-friendly districts such as those in Dunedin and Safety Harbor a priority by coming up with strategies for streetscaping and landscaping.

    "The small amenities of life," she said. "People want to come, build a nice restaurant or store, and (establish an area where) people have that sense of place."

    -- Michael Sandler can be reached at 445-4174 or sandler@sptimes.com .

    If you go

    Redevelopment Opportunities Summit for Pinellas Communities

    Where: Harborview Center, 300 Cleveland St., Clearwater

    When: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Dec. 12; 8 a.m. to noon Dec. 13

    For information: Call Pinellas County Economic Development, 453-7200, or register online at www.siliconbay.org.

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