“Build it and they will come” might be a good axiom for baseball fields.

But for highways? Not so much.

Citrus County is on the verge of having a major highway cut right down its middle section. The Suncoast Parkway is undoubtedly the biggest transportation project to hit this area in decades.

And some are worried that plans are not in place to take advantage of the expected avalanche of development sure to come from it.

“The parkway’s coming and we’re not ready,” said former county commissioner Dennis Damato, who believes he has a plan to turn that around. “(Citrus County) is at a crossroads. You either get with the program or get passed by.”

The Chronicle is embarking on a year-long project called “Driving Development.” Starting this month, the newspaper will publish a story once every six weeks or so detailing some aspect of how local stakeholders can work together to maximize the economic benefit of the Suncoast Parkway.

We’ll examine how Hernando County dealt with the building of Suncoast Parkway 1 when it was extended from the Veterans Expressway near Tampa all the way north to its present terminus at U.S. 98.

We’ll look at how the landscape at West Cardinal Street and State Road 44 will change once the toll road’s interchanges are built.

The Chronicle will examine how it might require a paradigm shift  to rethink existing partnerships among the county commissioners, chamber of commerce and economic development officials. 

For example, Marion County, which had been mired in an economic slump for years, decided to retool and form the Ocala/Marion County Chamber & Economic Partnership — a private-public partnership that has attracted new industry and jobs to Marion County and lowered its unemployment rate.

Could it work here? We’ll ask the question.

We’ll look at what the county has done with the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council (TBRPC)’s $40,000 study, which identifies and evaluates existing and proposed alternative land uses and development patterns at and near the U.S. 98, West Cardinal Street and State Road 44 interchanges.

And we’ll dig even deeper into Damato’s ‘sweet spot’ development concept — an ambitious plan to overhaul the county’s comprehensive land use plan and future land use map to drive development in the center of the county, roughly parallel to the parkway.

Damato: 'Now is the time'

Damato and other economic officials said the county is being handed a huge economic driver in the Suncoast Parkway and it is up to all the partners involved to take advantage of it. Those partners include county commissioners, the Citrus County Chamber of Commerce, the county's Economic Development Department, Citrus Business Alliance and Economic Development Authority.

Probably the biggest players will be the county commissioners, Damato said.

“Now is the time to do something,” he said. “And the only ones who can do something is the (county commission).”

The interchanges around the parkway — primarily at West Cardinal and State Road 44 — can either become dotted with gas stations and convenience stores or they can turn into manufacturing or professional office spots that will provide higher-paying jobs to move the county forward.

“What do you see (there) now?” Damato asked members of the Citrus Business Alliance recently where he presented his concept. “What do you want to see?”

Kinnard: 'There’s a balance to be struck'

Phase one of the expansion has the Suncoast Parkway going from U.S. 98 in Hernando County to State Road 44 in Lecanto. It’s supposed to be completed in 2022. After that, plans call for the toll road to be extended north  into Georgia along a route yet to be decided.

“There is no doubt we need to make sure we have planning in place and the land development and codes in place as to how we want these intersections to develop,” County Commission Chairman Jeff Kinnard said.

What does Kinnard think about Damato’s ‘sweet spot?’

“We have to be sure we use everybody’s tax dollars in a way that is equitable for everybody,” he said. “There’s a balance to be struck in planning properly and going too far with our money.”

While a focus on development along the parkway route will present an obvious benefit for those who live and work along that route, the county must consider the extreme east and west sides who may not derive the advantages.

“I think that’s a discussion you’ll hear from the board,” Kinnard said.

Sweet spot

Damato said the parkway will cut through the center of Citrus County where the county has already spent millions in getting the infrastructure — sewers, roads and utilities — in place.

That, he said, is the "sweet spot" for economic opportunity.

Private-sector developers, sensing the economic opportunity from the new road, have done most of the investing and now it’s time for the county to do its part, he said.

Damato said there is “good buildable land” around the parkway and a safe enough distance from coastal flooding.

Damato said the county’s Interchange Management Area (IMA) needs to be revamped to prepare for growth.

County commissioners adopted the IMA in 2005 as a way to manage non-residential development situated in a one-mile radius of the new parkway interchanges at West Cardinal Street and State Road 44 

The IMA standards require that any new or expanded non-residential facilities built there must have water and sewer.

Damato’s sweet spot concept was endorsed by members of the Citrus Business Alliance. CBA Chairman Jim Green said the next step is to alert county commissioners of its support and, hopefully, get the concept on an upcoming commission agenda for further discussion. That’s where the heavy questions will be asked, cost being one of them.

Green called the new toll road is a “valuable economic engine.”

“We need it for safe evacuation from storms and for improved mobility throughout the state,” Green said. “As thousands of new residents move to Florida,  we should strive to be ahead of the curve on highway construction — not scrambling to catch up.”

Reaction

Bruce Register, executive director of the county’s Economic Development Department, said he’s already working on many of the things Damato has stressed —, getting rezoning in place along the parkway corridor and attracting quality growth.

“Change is never easy but I think it’s something that needs to be addressed,” he said.

Donna Bidlack, executive officer of the Citrus County Builders Alliance, said the county needs to educate people about the benefits of economic development generated from the parkway. Many remain resistant to change and want to keep the county as it is, she said.

But they really don’t have a choice, she said. 

“They don’t want to see change, but that change is coming,” Bidlack said.

Bidlack hopes that all the concern about driving development translates to action and not just well-meaning words.

“We need to do something than just talk about this,” she said.

Josh Wooten, CEO/president of the Citrus County Chamber of Commerce, said there is obviously a cost to all this and it may include hiring an outside consultant to help guide the county through the development process.

But the time to start is now, he said.

“What are we going to do?” he said. “Are we going to let (development) happen to us? You’ve got to start somewhere.

County Administrator Randy Oliver said the county is focusing on West Cardinal Street.

Starting in January, he said, the county will host a series of meetings with property owners on Cardinal Street and others interested and get their input as to how they envision that road will look going forward.

“Some people believe Cardinal is going to stay the way that it is,” Oliver said. “That’s not going to happen.”

At a recent CBA meeting, Damato included a slide from Sir Winston Churchill that summed up what many said: “he who fails to plan is planning to fail.”

Contact Chronicle reporter Michael D. Bates at 352-563-3205 or mbates@chronicleonline.com.