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A Times Editorial

Demographics, growth present many challenges

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 17, 2001

The recently released U.S. Census figures tell us this much about Pasco County: We're growing, but no more rapidly than Florida as a whole.

It is a bit of a disappointment to local governments. They cannot count on a large influx of new federal aid coming their way because Pasco's growth was proportionate to the rest of the state.

Likewise, the political posturing for an anticipated congressional seat may be premature. Orange County and South Florida are more likely locales for the two new seats coming Florida's way.

In Pasco the Census documented that people are moving to Wesley Chapel, Land O'Lakes, Trinity and the Little Road corridor stretching from Seven Springs to Moon Lake. It is no secret. The building permits issued for River Ridge, Trinity, Meadow Pointe, Sable Ridge, and Willow Bend neighborhoods indicated new homes and new residents were arriving.

The Census recorded 344,765 Pasco residents, a 23 percent increase from 1990. ThePasco County Commission likely helped contribute to that final count. It joined other local governments in promoting the Census and encouraging people to fill out the appropriate questionnaire in a timely manner. The county's final population tally is 12,000 higher than the previous estimate.

Like much of Florida, Pasco's Hispanic population fueled a large percentage of the increase -- accounting for 19,603 people, a 111 percent jump from 1990 figures.

More than ethnic diversity increased. Pasco schools, for instance, are confronted with changing demographics bringing poorer families to the county's west side. The two-bedroom, single-family home marketed to retirees in earlier decades is now home to younger, less affluent families with school-age children.

As Times staff writer Kent Fischer recently reported, enrollment in west Pasco grew by 44 percent in the 1990s, but student poverty jumped a whopping 145 percent. Meanwhile, the poverty rate in east Pasco grew only 2 percent during the past decade. The result is a move to begin more pre-kindergarten programs to get children ready for school and to increase before- and after-school care. But it also means schools deal with non-educational issues such as helping families obtain health care or social services.

Those same changing demographics also spurred a county change in its code enforcement techniques as it sought to protect property values in west Pasco's older neighborhoods.

Growth challenges stretch beyond schools and neighborhood complaints. Pasco County's Economic Development Council, for instance, works to bring new industry here but is confounded by a poor east-west road network.

Economist Bill Fruth recently suggested Pasco faced the prospect of almost being two separate counties without an adequate road system to tie the east and west sides together. What that could mean in the future is a west side of the county doomed to low-paying, service-related jobs as higher-wage employment opportunities await to the east along the Suncoast Parkway and Interstate 75 corridors.

All told, Pasco is bigger -- with more children, more diversity and larger pockets of poverty than 10 years ago. Now the challenge for governments, schools and social service agencies moves from counting heads to serving constituents.

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