WESLEY CHAPEL — Will Weatherford worked his way up the House leadership ranks, serving through years of lean budgets and cutbacks. So it was fortuitous that Weatherford’s final session as House speaker happened to fall in a year when Florida was blessed with a $1.2 billion budget surplus.
“Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good,” he joked. “Actually, it’s a very fiscally conservative budget. But we were in a position to be able to respond in areas where there was a lot of pent-up demand.”
Weatherford’s good timing could be a boon to Pasco County, especially if the $77 billion budget approved late Friday night survives Gov. Rick Scott’s veto pen.
That’s because Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, was able to secure $10 million for a future performing arts center and convention center for his home county. The funding was awarded to Pasco-Hernando State College for a joint project with the county and school district as seed funding for a facility that is expected to cost $60 million.
“It’s a worthy project,” Weatherford said. “It’s a great need, and it’s a regional need and an opportunity for the school district and college to work together. We don’t have a place anywhere in this county where 2,000 people can go in a room with air conditioning.”
The school district has performing arts centers at Wesley Chapel High and River Ridge High, but Assistant Superintendent Ray Gadd said this center would be larger and serve as the venue for more functions such as conferences and conventions, and could draw people from Hillsborough County.
The district certainly would have its own uses for it, though, such as high school commencement ceremonies that have grown too large for the school campuses. “Our kids go to the Sun Dome for graduation,” Gadd said.
The location hasn’t been determined, but Gadd said the district owns property in Wiregrass that could be a possibility.
Lucy Miller, spokeswoman for PHSC, said the college has no room for expansion at its new Porter Campus. “It could be in the area,” she said. “But we have limited space at Porter — that’s one of the reasons we built an urban, high-rise campus.”
PHSC currently has performing arts and drama programs at its West Pasco campus, but the auditorium there seats a maximum of 600 people. Having a facility with seating for 2,000 opens up all kinds of possibilities for the college and the district, she said.
“This is a whole other echelon,” she said. “We currently offer classes in performing arts and dramatic arts, but I could see us developing degree programs in those areas. That’s something we’d like to do.”
Planning experts from the Urban Land Institute, who toured the county last October, said Pasco lacks adequate cultural amenities and performance space for a community this size that strives to be a “premier county.” The panel also pointed out the need for convention or meeting space in the county, and the Pasco Economic Development Council has recommended the county allocate a portion of its Penny for Pasco funding for a convention center.
“We’re not trying to compete with Tampa,” Commissioner Ted Schrader said. “We want something that could compliment the Tampa Convention Center.”
Local leaders agree that Weatherford will have to convince Scott of the need.
“We have to get past the governor’s veto pen on that one,” state Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz, said. “That’s a big hurdle there.”
The budget heads next to Scott, who can veto individual spending items. A spokesman for the governor said he has not officially received the budget yet, but once he does he has 15 calendar days to sign it.
Other Pasco items in the state budget include:
$1.5 million for aeronautics program at Sunlake High School
$10,000 to cover start-up costs for Homeless Resource Center
$200,000 to expand the Prodigy Program for at-risk youth at Lacoochee-Trilby Community Center
$1 million for Hacienda Hotel restoration
$1 million for Metropolitan Ministries transitional housing
$1.15 million matching funds for Tampa Bay Innovative Training Centers in Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties
$2.7 million in recurring funds for Child Protective Care services in the Sixth Judicial Circuit
Reporter Ronnie Blair contributed to this report.