Project Arthur revealed: Cancer center and research institute planned for Pasco

Arthur, the code name assigned to a massive economic development project in central Pasco on land acquired last year by Lennar Corp. had remained publicly unidentified since early 2018. But the mystery was lifted last week.

The centerpiece of the planned 800-acre corporate business park will be an H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute life sciences research building, which actually has its own Knights of the Round Table reference of Project Excalibur.

Moffitt’s CEO and president Dr. Alan List confirmed the plans last week to the Tampa Bay Times editorial board.

The corporate park, on a portion of nearly 7,000 acres of ranch land abutting the Suncoast Parkway, south of State Road 52, could include as much as 24 million square feet of office and industrial space. Pasco County commissioners approved a land-use change earlier this year to allow the corporate park to be contained within a proposed development that also could include up to 11,000 homes.

Moffitt is seeking an increased share of the state cigarette tax revenue to finance its expansion into Pasco and for a new clinical and research hospital in Tampa. It hopes to secure $191 million starting in 2023 to build the Pasco research park to meet the demand for cancer therapy while creating space for bio-tech company partners.

State and local officials lauded Moffitt’s mission and Pasco’s opportunity to be a part of it.

“This is not just a Pasco thing, not just a Tampa Bay thing, it’s really a state of Florida thing,’’ said Bill Cronin president and CEO of the Pasco Economic Development Council. “It’s really important … to anyone who’s been touched by cancer.’’

The quality of life would improve for the entire state,’’ said Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, who tried unsuccessfully to obtain funding for Moffit via a legislative appropriation each of the past three years.

Moffitt is known for its immunotherapy work that uses the body’s own cells to fight cancer. Moffitt’s work has drawn bio-tech companies to Tampa, and that trend is expected to continue in central Pasco as private-sector firms seek to work in Moffitt’s research laboratories.

Pasco commissioners, who were briefed previously on Moffitt’s plans, were excited about the economic prospects, as well.

“That is going to be a facility of international significance,’’ said Commissioner Kathryn Starkey. “To have Moffitt in the Tampa Bay area is an asset for the whole community and to be able to expand its research and have a campus like this … it’s a real gem. These are high-paying jobs and quality, quality companies that will be moving here.’’

“Moffitt’s investment and confidence in us is exciting, and it has the power to shape our region for generations to come,’’ agreed Commissioner Mike Wells Jr., who sits on the Pasco Economic Development Council.

Lennar, which purchased more than 2,900 acres from the Bexley family’s Angeline Corp. in early 2018, plans to buy the remaining 4,000 acres from the family in a sale that is expected to close before the end of the next year, said Mark Metheny, president of Lennar’s central Florida division. Lennar is partnering with Metro Development Group on the project that will retain the Angeline name.

The proposed corporate park could feature multi-story office buildings, effectively putting a skyline in the center of the county.

Metheny said the relationship with Moffitt is highly desirable, particularly after seeing other communities successfully partner with health care companies and research facilities. He said work on the Angeline site could begin in about 18 months.

Moffitt flirted with a move to Pasco County in 2006 when it considered land in the Wiregrass Ranch area of Wesley Chapel for space to provide research, outpatient services and offices.

Moffitt decided to stay in Hillsborough County, and Pasco officials began a greater investment in economic development by setting aside annual allocations in the county budget for business incentives.

Later, voters renewed the Penny for Pasco sales tax in 2012, a portion of which is financing tens of millions of dollars worth of economic development incentives, loans for speculative office space, job training and certifying potential industrial development sites.

Cronin, who became head of the Pasco Economic Development Council in 2016, said Moffitt officials told him the 2006 encounter helped pave the way for the cancer center’s current interest in Pasco.

“During that time, Pasco got its attention,’’ he said.

It’s too early to begin projections on potential incentives, jobs created and private capital investments, Cronin said. The task at hand is seeking funding from Tallahassee.

“We’re going to work very hard on it,’’ said Simpson, who becomes Senate president after the 2020 legislative session. “Hopefully, we’ll have a different outcome in the next couple of years.’’

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