West Pasco is lagging behind the east side in economic development, David Engel, Pasco County’s director of economic growth, said May 17 at a breakfast meeting of the county’s Council of Neighborhood Associations at Spartan Manor in New Port Richey.

“The east side is really our development zone of emergence,” Engel said. That doesn’t mean, however, that West Pasco can’t overcome its challenges and thrive, he added.

The major concerns, he said, are traffic flow, efforts to revitalize low-income areas and improving, countywide, the quality and skills of the labor force. Current efforts to combat these include new road projects, development of blighted commercial areas, and a partnership between his department and Pasco County Schools to provide adult education, which would be paid for by Penny for Pasco.

Regarding blighted areas, “Businesses don’t want to go” into them, Engel said. “When you have a blighted commercial area, like U.S. 19, you have to do some demonstration projects. Let’s show the world U.S. 19 is a diamond in the rough.”

As part of that effort, the county is helping small businesses along the corridor with improvements to their buildings and landscaping through Community Block Development Grants and commercial landscape loans.

More dramatic will be changes to large commercial tracts on the highway, such as the moribund Universal Plaza in Holiday, which recently showed up on a YouTube video by Southern Life with human excrement dotting its pavement. Engels said the owner originally envisioned changing it to a shopping center of discount stores, but the property is now under contract to build a mixed-use project with two seven- to eight-story luxury apartments with parking decks and 65,000 square feet of retail on the first floor.

At U.S. 19 and Darlington, also in Holiday, AmSkills, a nonprofit that trains people for well-paying jobs in manufacturing, intends to build the first certified robotics education center in the county. Eventually, AmSkills facilities will cover the whole of the property.

In Port Richey, at Gulf View Square, the former Sears building has been demolished for the construction of garden apartments, and the Dillard’s anchor at the opposite end sits empty.

The mall “was very active 30 years ago; it was the place to be.” Engels said at one time he was in favor of demolishing it, but now its owners are attempting to revitalize it with small businesses and more local merchants. Harold Seltzer’s Steakhouse, a popular eatery, remains in the mall, as do a variety of jewelry, clothing and accessory stores, Lens Crafters and other businesses. It also hosts community markets and food trucks on some weekends.

The elephant in the room

It’s impossible, though, to talk about development in West Pasco without acknowledging what is rapidly becoming a monster issue: the housing crisis. It’s most dramatically visible in the extremes of, on the one hand, a glut of luxury housing projects that are seemingly taking up every square foot of undeveloped land, and, on the other, the ubiquitous camps where homeless people live — 62 in the county at last count — with most of them in West Pasco.

Less visible but every bit as disturbing is the fact that rising housing costs are forcing county residents, many of them longtime or even second or third generation, to move to Hernando or even Citrus counties.

“The average salary here is $47,000,” Engels said. “Wages are up 18%; housing is up 63%. Most of our labor force can’t afford to live here in safe, decent housing,” Engel said. “Forty-two percent of our workers are commuting from out of the county. These are our teachers, our first responders, people you would be proud to live next door to.” Even for people making $70,000 per year, he added, the housing situation is “very dire.”

One solution, he said, could be linkage fees to pay for low-income housing. Engels proposes that those fees be spread around the community and not just assessed to developers.

“Business and industry should contribute, because we’re providing housing to their workers,” he said.