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Tourism tops Mariano’s long list of goals for 2014

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NEW PORT RICHEY — When it comes to New Year’s resolutions, nobody in Pasco is likely to write a longer list than Jack Mariano.

As chairman of the Pasco County Commission this year, Mariano has plenty of goals in mind during his tenure.

The goal nearest and dearest to his heart, Mariano said in an interview, is to see the county park at SunWest become a reality in 2014. He remains steadfast in his belief that the park could become a tourism magnet and give the west side of the county a jolt with new development.

For at least four years, Mariano has led people on tours of the Aripeka-area site on the former SunWest mine property, west of U.S. 19. Where casual visitors might see only rocks, weeds and sand in the roughly hewn landscape, Mariano could envision the lakefront park facilities.

Now going through the bidding process for construction in 2014, the first phase of the park includes a new entrance off U.S. 19, beaches on the south and west shores of the lake and a 500-space parking lot. The county is negotiating with wake park designer Pat Panakos to install a cable system and operate the park.

Mariano’s enthusiasm is rubbing off on people such as consultant Mario Farias. Farias, who helped bring professional beach volleyball to St. Petersburg’s Vinoy Park thinks the SunWest site could be ripe for tournaments as well. Farias was among a group that toured the site Dec. 11.

“We’ve always struggled for our identity,” Mariano said, referring to the county. Pasco could evolve beyond its bedroom community roots, he thinks.

Tourism could become the hallmark of county efforts in 2014, Mariano predicts. Besides SunWest, plans for the Wiregrass area in Wesley Chapel and a combo park, school, theater and homes on Starkey Ranch land are equally “impressive.”

Mariano said he wants to ”push things along” as chairman. For instance, the SunWest plan started coming together nearly a decade ago.

Nevertheless, “You’re still one vote out of five,” Mariano said about the role of chairman.

Mariano is serving his third term as a commissioner and previously was chairman in 2009. He reflected on the huge contrast between the county’s optimistic outlook now and the depths of the Great Recession four years ago.

Quality of life helps Pasco families and seniors stay happy as residents here, Mariano emphasized. The county now is in a position to do more about it as economic recovery takes hold.

Gasoline taxes could become a hot-potato issue again in 2014. A proposed 5-cent increase in gas taxes last fall stalled. Mariano would prefer finding other sources of funds to build and fix roads.

Pasco should maintain the roads it already has, Mariano said. Moon Lake Road needs attention, so commissioners recently voted to speed up the timetable for improvements to the road south of S.R. 52.

While Mariano supports the Ridge Road extension to the Suncoast Parkway, perhaps the county should entertain converting it into a toll-road project, he suggested.

Plans are proceeding for a privately funded, elevated toll road along much of S. R. 54 from U.S. 19 to the Wesley Chapel area, Mariano said. He was a bit surprised that the Urban Land Institute analysts strongly recommended against the elevated road. The ULI’s transportation expert, however, was not able to visit Pasco in October, Mariano noted.

corth@suncoastnews.com

(727) 815-1068

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