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Column

Administrator turns eye to building communities

By C.T. BOWEN
Published February 5, 2006


John Gallagher is moving from government administrator to social engineer.

It might be a logical metamorphosis for someone in the homestretch of his public service career. Gallagher is several weeks away from his 59th birthday and the start of his 25th year as Pasco County administrator. Late last year, he received a four-year contract extension. He said it likely will be his last.

In a 90-minute interview Friday afternoon, we asked the county administrator the typical question tossed at newly elected or re-elected county commissioners. What is it you hope to accomplish over the next four years?

Gallagher looked forward by glancing backward. He noted the county government's focus on making Pasco a better place to live and work. Over the past seven years, commissioners banned new billboards, protected trees, and established landscape and sign requirements for businesses and architectural rules for so-called big box stores. Highways became boulevards with bicycle paths, sidewalks and landscaped medians abutting the usual lanes of asphalt.

"I'm more into planning and the quality of life stuff," Gallagher said. "I don't know, maybe because I'm getting older."

Older. Wiser? Plus, the vacancy at the deputy county administrator's position meant more hands-on involvement. Health-related issues forced former Deputy Administrator Bill Munz to move to a less taxing position in the planning department. So, Gallagher joined the Development Review Committee, which must approve individual development sites' plans.

Credit, however, does not go to Gallagher exclusively. Commissioners hired Robert Sumner as county attorney in 1999, and changes by voters brought more progressive commissioners to the dais beginning in 1998.

Along the way, Gallagher started worrying about quality of life as much as he did bricks and mortar. The social engineering spark came during an early morning drive from his home in New Port Richey to speak to the Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce. He cruised east across Pasco and was confounded by the heavy volume of southbound commuters heading to Hillsborough County to work.

It is a frequently quoted figure. Pasco has a live-here, work-there lifestyle with 46 percent of its work force traveling outside the county each day for employment.

Gallagher would like to trim that figure. It's one of the reasons he's an advocate of the planned town center developments. Longleaf in west Pasco is one of those, featuring sidewalks and shop fronts of traditional downtowns accessible by foot from nearby housing. Others are planned for Connerton in Land O'Lakes, at New River and at Curley and Overpass roads near Wesley Chapel and in Trinity.

Essentially, each center is a downtown district of commercial space and professional offices surrounded by high-density townhouses and apartments, with more traditional single-family neighborhoods following on the outskirts.

"So you build communities instead of just developing subdivisions," he said.

If the centers capture one in five of those new residents to work within their town-center community, Gallagher figures they will be a success.

"Anything to give people the opportunity to live and work together in the same place," he said. Part of this is market driven. Changing demographics have meant a chance to try new things. The west Pasco modest housing aimed at retirees in the 1970s didn't require much pondering on the social implications of planning decisions.

"All you had to do was make sure (a new neighborhood) had a civic association building and everybody would be happy," Gallagher said.

But bingo and pancake breakfasts gave way to commuting chaos. Now, Gallagher sees the hurried lifestyle of two working adults commuting to jobs, talking on cell phones to coordinate chauffeuring kids to soccer practice or dance class, eating fast food for dinner and helping kids with homework before crashing for the evening only to get up and repeat the cycle the next day.

There also is a bit of melancholy in what could be the legacy of Gallagher's final four years in office. He is stirred by memories of his childhood in New Port Richey.

"I could hop on my bicycle and ride downtown and get a haircut and get a drink and get something to eat," he said. "That's what I hope to see."

Reach C.T. Bowen at bowen@sptimes.com or at 727-869-6239.

[Last modified February 5, 2006, 08:32:59]


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