By Mitch Traphagen
RUSKIN- "Itís kind of like watching a clock," said one environmental consultant. "If you stare at the hour hand it doesnít appear to be moving. But it is moving and it keeps moving. Maybe thatís how the development is in South Hillsborough."
The hour hand is definitely moving. New residents are coming in at a rate of roughly 10 per day - every day. While not a flood, growth has caught on in south county and it has caught the attention of major companies.
How ĎBout That Home Depot?
Several companies were contacted for this story in an attempt to determine their plans for building in south county. Not a single company offered concrete information. Publix said nothing had been signed. Target and Home Depot said they had no plans.
From their standpoint, that makes sense. "I wouldnít expect them to comment until they have a product they can put out there," said John Tipton, Chief Financial Officer of Dickman Realty in Ruskin. According to Tipton, however, Home Depot is possibly in the planning stage for building on State Road 674 and Interstate 75 in Ruskin. "They are looking into the necessary permits," he said. When contacted, a representative from Home Depot in Atlanta said that he was not aware of plans for building in Ruskin. He did say, however, that he was familiar with the area.
Home Depot referred further questions to a public relations firm. A representative from that firm indicated that Home Depot was indeed scouting for locations in the Ruskin/Apollo Beach area. No further details were available.
The existence of a south county Home Depot appears to be only a matter of time. No successful, expanding retailer would ignore the more than 30,000 housing permits in south county. But those homes will not be built overnight and neither will the Home Depot.
On the condition that no details would be provided, a source at Target Stores revealed that at least two Tampa Bay area stores will be built over the next year. One of those stores will be a supercenter. Neither of those stores, however, will be built in south county.
Few companies are willing to reveal details about their expansion strategies until the building actually begins. Why give the competition a heads up? As such, even the public records of property sales and permitting usually lead down twisty roads with dead ends. A case in point is the vacant Dennyís Restaurant near I-75 at the border of Sun City Center and Ruskin.
In May of this year, the Dennyís property was sold to a company called MMR Sun City LLC. A search on their address resulted in a dead end at a corporate office park in West Palm Beach. Digging deeper, the Florida Division of Corporations shows that MMR Sun City LLC was incorporated on May 7, 2003. The registering agent is listed as Gary Gerson with yet another address provided. A search on Mr. Gerson reveals that he is a corporate law attorney with a West Palm Beach firm. A search on the address given, however, leads to yet another West Palm Beach law firm.
In the end there was no deep mystery. The site is destined to once again become a Dennyís Restaurant. Until the hammers start to swing, however, commercial real estate can be a convoluted business.
Speaking of hammers, they are definitely swinging along the U.S. 301 corridor. New homes are going up at a staggering pace and virtually everyone now believes that a SuperWal-Mart will be built at the intersection of S.R. 674.
"The northeast corner of 674 and 301 - that thing has been through so many different changes over the years - the only reason that I believe a Wal-Mart is going in there is because Iíve seen the drawings," said Jim Hosler, director of research and economic development for the Planning Commission.
FishHawk Ranch and the surrounding Riverview area development has literally taken on a life of its own and would require a separate article to cover. No one even seems to know what to call the area - South Brandon, Riverview or Lithia. Regardless, there was a time in which the nearly 8,000 permitted homes would be called a decent sized town by itself.
While Riverview and 301 may be todayís darling of the construction world, tomorrowís darlings are just now becoming clear.
Big Bend Road between Apollo Beach and Gibsonton is still reasonably quiet with large areas of undeveloped land.
There are absolutely no plans to keep that land undeveloped. Suggestions of a major shopping mall and a large grocery store are now stirring the speculation pot. There is no doubt there will be all of that and more. Itís all a matter of time.
In Ruskin, 19th Avenue Northeast is a two lane country road. There are farms and there is undeveloped land. There is also a sign announcing a new middle school and some serious construction towards making that school a reality. Closer to U.S. 41 there are plans for one of the largest libraries in Hillsborough County along that quiet road. Irongate, a new apartment complex for seniors already exists and the parking lots are full of cars.
But with the starts come the inevitable fits. "Nineteenth Avenue is interesting," said Hosler. "It isnít part of the transportation plan. It needs to pop up on someoneís radar before too many people start moving in there because right now itís just a country road."
Also in Ruskin and continuing through Sun City Center, S.R. 674 is apparently about to step into the limelight. In addition to a possible Home Depot, thousands of new homes are permitted for the surrounding area.
"If you look at a map youíll see three major north-south arteries, 301, 41, and I-75 and they all come together here," said Craig Beggins of Century 21 Beggins Enterprises. "What a great opportunity for retail."
It will probably never be the title of a post adolescent prime time television show but Ruskin may well be on the verge of arriving.
An Apollo Beach postmark has significantly increased in status with the arrival of Mira Bay. While Riverview and Apollo Beach grab the headlines, Ruskin has seemingly been the kid no one wanted on their team.
The K-Mart stands empty and nearby the former Food Lion grocery store is empty. On the other side of town Publix just recently closed up shop. "It just wasnít up to Publix standards," said Dwayne Stevens of Publix in Jacksonville. "It was an older facility and it wasnít meeting profitability standards."
Despite rumors of Publix building at Mira Bay or on Big Bend Road, Stevens firmly stated that Publix has not signed anything for another south county store.
But are these empty buildings indicative of a failing town? Probably not as those buildings are more the result of a larger picture.
K-Mart had filed for bankruptcy and closed hundreds of stores across the country. The Food Lion closed because the company was purchased by Kash N Karry which already had a Ruskin location. Publix appears to be moving away from leasing properties, such as the Ruskin location, and towards owning the land they do business on.
"Iím banking on Ruskin," said Beggins. "I think that Ruskin has so much charm. It is going to get caught up."
No one would agree more with that than Daniel Kushmer, executive director of the Ruskin Chamber of Commerce. Kushmer also recognizes that part of the charm of Ruskin is in the small town, friendly feel.
"My goal is that Ruskin will maintain the small town, the mom and pop operations where people like to go to park their car and shop," he said. "Will that happen in five years? No. Ten years maybe. When you look at Hillsborough County, where are the true downtown centers? Tampa has one, Plant City has one and Ruskin has one. The other communities are just so spread out."
Kushmer continued by saying, "Itís the small cottage industries - Janís Fashions, Frame Crafters, businesses that offer services that you wonít get in a large outlet. A SuperWal-Mart is so huge that some people wonít necessarily go into them. An ice cream shop, a meat market would be great in Ruskin."
"My personal thing would be to bring in a Harley dealership," he added with a smile.
Downtown Apollo Beach
"There is going to be so much growth - there are going to be changes," said Judi Brogden of Signature Realty in Apollo Beach. "You canít buy property on [U.S.] 41 anymore - itís all destined to be commercial development. I think in terms of shopping at some point Apollo Beach will have to take on a different look."
That different look is already in development. At the northern corner of Mira Bay, Terrabrook is creating a commercial area that may some day be the new downtown Apollo Beach.
"We donít have anything to announce yet," said Mira Bay spokesman John Heagney. "We are in negotiations but there will be very nice commercial entities going in there - both retail and services."
This type of growth is just deja vu all over again for the developers of Mira Bay.
"When Terrabrook got involved in the Westchase area it was literally on the wrong side of the tracks," continued Heagney. "It was 1970s era homes, mobile homes, railroad tracks and cow pastures. In ten years it went from that to one of the highest income areas in Tampa Bay. Itís not only what Westchase has become it is what the whole area has become. Citrus Park Mall would not be there if not for Westchase. We anticipate fully that youíre going to see the same scenario played out in Apollo Beach. The first step is to unify the area into a single marketing entity."
Welcome to SouthShore
The marketing entity that Heagney referred to is known as SouthShore. Depending on who you talk to, Southshore is made up of anywhere from five to eight communities. The idea is to unify resources to become a major player in the Tampa Bay region.
That is not a small feat. The Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metropolitan area is consistently ranked as one of the hottest economies in the country. Over the past several years, fully one in ten jobs created in the entire nation were created in the Tampa Bay area.
For the south county communities, SouthShore gives muscle to otherwise overlooked small towns.
"Not one community in SouthShore is big enough to bring in a major employer," said Kushmer. "As SouthShore our goal is to bring in the employers who have higher paying jobs. We can pull from all of SouthShore. We all have to work together to pull those employers in."
The risk, of course, is that a merging of community might will also mean a blurring of community identities. Ruskin, Apollo Beach, Gibsonton and Riverview could all disappear to a greater "SouthShore."
"I donít think that will happen because within a centralized chamber of commerce would be community people to maintain the voice of Ruskin, the voice of Apollo Beach," Kushmer said. "If we donít plan together then we will look like Brandon, weíll just have a hodge podge. Weíve got it all down here, itís not just Gibsonton, itís not just Ruskin. If we have to lose a bit of individuality then so be it but weíre not going to lose our identity."
From the Planning Commission, Jim Hosler generally agrees with that sentiment. "The plan is supposed to help maintain the identity of the villages down there," he said. "Wimauma is a village thatís been around a while, Ruskin is a village thatís been around a while. Riverview, however, has gotten so big that there is no central town there anymore."
We Wonít Recognize the Place
So big retailers are scouting, buying and getting ready to swing hammers. The traffic has increased noticeably over the past few years but is still manageable - there are few rush hour traffic reports from Apollo Beach or Ruskin.
But despite a steady gaze, the hour hand is indeed moving.
Even with the current and future growth of the area, not a single expert contacted for this series of articles believed that south county was destined to become "another Brandon."
"I donít think weíll ever see Brandon levels," said Dickmanís Tipton. "Weíve learned from that. I think a better comparison is with North Tampa."
"This is all coming from planned developments that have been on the books for a long, long time," said Hosler. "But itís coming from a different age then from when Brandon was built."
And no one had complaints about Mira Bay.
"Mira Bay is going to be one of the most positive things that happened to that area, maybe in its history," said Heagney. "Itís going to improve the quality of life for everyone down there. Itís going to help property values for people that already own. Itís going to be an enhancement to everyone down there."
In five years it is likely weíll all still recognize the place. All bets are off for ten years, though. For most people, however, it is a winning game. As the area grows, the income levels rise, the jobs become more plentiful and the property values keep going up.
But not everyone is on the gravy train. Farm workers are already feeling the loss of agricultural land to development.
"I donít think the poor people worry too much about it," said Sister Maureen Smith of the Redlands Christian Migrant Association. "Theyíve got nothing to lose."
Some are finding jobs in construction or landscaping but some will just be moving on.
For those staying, however, the future is now in progress. We will almost certainly get our Home Depot, our Target, our Lowes and virtually everything else. Itís all just a matter of time.
For now, however, we may all do well to enjoy the open space that still exists on Big Bend Road. We may all do well to enjoy stopping by a friendly produce stand on U.S. 41. Neither of those things are likely to remain over the years, they are not part of any plan.
Changes are coming and the future looks bright for south county. But there is much to enjoy in the present as well.
Without realizing it, Susie Nolan Marler, the sales and marketing manager for Mira Bay, summed up this entire three part series. "The face of SouthShore is not going to change overnight," she said. "Itís going to change over time and will all be the better for it. SouthShore is just a fantastic place."
Coming Up This Summer
The face of south county is changing but the community leaders are keeping one eye on the Tampa Bay market and one eye on their own neighborhood. That is an activity that can cause a pretty serious headache. What does it all mean for your town?
But then again, if you are a south county resident reading this newspaper, you donít have a town. There are no towns in South Hillsborough County. Well, not yet anyway.
It is not just residential and commercial growth shaping the future of South Hillsborough County. Find out more this summer in the Observer News.
The Rest of the Story
For all of the dozens of quotes in this article there are hundreds more that space simply did not allow. The story, of course goes on and will for some time to come as the face of South Hillsborough continues to change.
The Observer News is grateful to all of the people who allowed their time and shared their thoughts for this story. Those people include:
Daniel Kushmer, Executive Director of the Ruskin Chamber of Commerce.
John Heagney, Public Relations Director for Mira Bay.
Susie Nolan Marler, Sales and Marketing Manager for Mira Bay.
Jim Hosler, Director of Research and Economic Development for the Hillsborough County Planning Commission.
And the following people as pictured (from left): Craig Beggins, John Tipton, Luanne DeCarbo and Judi Brogden, and Marge Connolly.