Brooksville Main Street program loses director but hopes to gain new focus

Finding a new leader and funding the program will be the biggest hurdles.
One possible view of the future of downtown Brooksville through the eyes of designers for the Brooksville Main Street Program. Renderings were done by Randy Wilson of Community Design Solutions and Andy Kalback of Kalback Design Studio.
One possible view of the future of downtown Brooksville through the eyes of designers for the Brooksville Main Street Program. Renderings were done by Randy Wilson of Community Design Solutions and Andy Kalback of Kalback Design Studio.
Published May 23

BROOKSVILLE — For years, government officials, business leaders and community volunteers have talked about how to make the most of Brooksville’s unique charm and character.

They haven't always agreed on what that should look like, even after the Brooksville Main Street Program got started almost three years ago.

Several weeks ago, Main Street executive director Ryan Malloy left his job, and now those who support the program — and Brooksville — are hoping for a better coordinated effort to promote the city.

Main Street staff members and volunteers have launched numerous events downtown, including the popular Friday Night Live concerts, vendor markets and special programs at Christmas. But local business owners have said they didn’t feel that Malloy was working for all of their best interests. John Lee, owner of the Coney Island Drive Inn, thought Main Street should have helped more as he started the Brooksville Blueberry Festival two years ago, after the Florida Blueberry Festival pulled out of the community.

Previous coverage: Smaller blueberry festival coming to Brooksville

Social media posts blasting Malloy and questioning whether he was playing favorites among local businesses have made the rounds, but have faded since Malloy left the job. Malloy did not return calls or emails seeking his comments on the matter.

"We're really all working for the same thing,'' said Cliff Manuel, chairman of the Brooksville Vision Foundation, the parent company of the Main Street Program.

The foundation is regrouping after Malloy's departure, Manuel said, and he hopes everyone can come together. Manuel planned to meet this week with the program's remaining employee, Tina Marie Polson, the events and marketing coordinator.

No decisions have yet been made on hiring a the new director, Manuel said. Funding also is a concern.

When the Vision Foundation initiated the Main Street Program, it asked city and county leaders for funding. The Brooksville City Council and Hernando County Commission each pledged $51,000 per year for three years, which ended this year.

Additional funds came from sponsorships and events, which most Main Street agencies rely on, Manuel said, since "public sector dollars are very hard to get and maintain for a long time.''

Hernando County commissioners have talked publicly about continued funding for Main Street and other community agencies, but as of last week had not included Main Street in next year’s budget.

City leaders have not talked about giving more money to the program, although City Manager Mark Kutney said the program's events have helped the city. He cited the Christmas program and public workshops held earlier this year to discuss revitalization plans. The latter allowed citizens to view artist renderings of what downtown could look like in the future.

"A successful Main Street Program can help a city with economic development and in revitalizing downtown areas,'' Kutney said. The city rents space to Main Street and "coordinates with Main Street on mutual objectives,'' he said.

Kutney said he has seen some of the local business discontent with Main Street, but hopes everyone can come together.

Lee hopes for that, too. In the two years he has organized the Brooksville Blueberry Festival, he said he has raised money for local charities, plus additional dollars that Main Street could have used to fund their program.

Instead, Lee is working toward the day when the Hernando High School Alumnae of the Future Farmers of America can take over the Brooksville Blueberry Festival.

As the largest event of the year downtown — bringing in about 30,000 visitors in April — Lee said it makes sense that Main Street and the festival should work together. He hopes that new leadership can smooth over some of the past concerns.

Natalie Kahler, formerly mayor and a city council member in Brooksville, is the new Main Street Program chairwoman. Lee sent her a note this week encouraging the cooperation. Earlier this month, Kahler met with other local business owners to learn more about their concerns.

The job of Main Street is to promote Brooksville, not serve as a marketing company for individual businesses, Kahler said. She wants Main Street to encourage people to come downtown and enjoy the shopping and restaurants, not to advertise particular businesses.

"It felt like it was a competition to them,'' she said.

Some people also disliked Malloy's demeanor, she said, while acknowledging that "this is not an easy community to become a part of.''

Lee said he thinks Kahler will help Main Street make positive headway for the city.

"This can work if we can get everyone pulling in the same direction,'' he said. "The biggest problem is that we just can't get out of our own way.''

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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