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Banding together to reinvent downtown Brooksville

The Brooksville Vision Foundation shares its name, more or less, with a defunct and failed organization called the Visioning/Strategic Planning Initiative.

It also has the same goal as that long-gone group — making downtown Brooksville a hub of commerce and culture.

But here is what the new foundation does not share with either its old namesake or the many other committees and task forces of the past two decades that have tried and failed to, for example, attract a single decent downtown restaurant that stays open after dark: The support of business leaders such as Cliff Manuel (engineering, development), Tommy Bronson (mining, development), Jim Kimbrough (banking, development) and Robert Buckner (real estate, development).

Yep, this is new, very new. In my memory, none of the big wheels in Brooksville have been what you could call spirited cheerleaders for downtown revitalization. A few of them have seemed downright dismissive of the idea.

Before discussing what may have changed their minds, let's mention something else different about this vision committee: It actually shows signs of getting things done.

The foundation is behind the Blueberry Festival, which is shaping up as an ambitious event for Brooksville, even an identity-changer.

Can Brooksville, once the "Home of the Tangerine," become Florida's new blueberry capital? That's one goal. The other is to bring lots of money-spending visitors to town for the event, scheduled for the first weekend in May, and hope some them come back to visit, buy a house or establish a happening little cafe on the courthouse square.

That, of course, means the city has to look like a place where somebody would want to invest. To accomplish this, the foundation has introduced something called Brooksville 2050. This does not mean the city will get around to beautification in 38 years or so, which, based on its track record, was my first thought.

No, it means people in town will start working now on long-range goals such upgrading parks, bringing in festivals, encouraging restoration of historic buildings and making downtown an easier place to walk and more difficult to drive through on one-way streets at top speed.

The city government is doing its part, offering small grants for local businesses to spruce up facades, signs or flower beds.

It has revised its zoning so, for example, property owners can put apartments on the long-abandoned upper floors of downtown buildings. The city is also in the process of redrawing its plan for the downtown community redevelopment area.

I know what you're thinking and, yes, it's true. The well-connected Hogan Law Firm managed to get a few billable hours out of the new zoning ordinance. Manuel's Coastal Engineering Associates was awarded the job of redesigning the redevelopment area.

But that doesn't mean Manuel, who has also donated services to the vision foundation, isn't sincere. I'll assume he is. Same with the rest of the business leaders involved.

Because a lot has changed over the years. That old visioning initiative in the early 1990s was instigated by City Council members who had run against entrenched business interests in the city. Not that I didn't admire the effort. But if you're anti-good-old boy, the good-old boys aren't going to be inclined to pitch in.

One of the other pro-revival groups, which did, in fairness, help establish the city tax fund that is now paying for those small business grants, was headed by a couple of women who didn't have a whole lot of pull at the time. Now, council member Lara Bradburn and City Manager Jenenne Norman-Vacha can evangelize about the city from the inside.

"It's a whole new ball game in Brooksville," Bradburn said.

Michael Heard, president of the vision foundation, is different, too — more energetic and informed than any previous would-be visionaries.

Finally, of course, the economy has tanked. A few years ago, the leaders in and out of government were all about projects far from Brooksville's core — extending sewer lines, building gated communities such Southern Hills and Bronson's Majestic Oaks.

That's where the real money was. Worries about downtown were left to the folks who sold hand-painted vases and old rocking chairs.

And, in the meantime, Brooksville was eclipsed by nearly every traditional small town in the region. Even formerly down-at-the-heels Bushnell has put up handsome signs defining the boundaries of its downtown, said Joe Murphy, who left his job as the city's redevelopment coordinator in 2006 partly out of frustration that the work was a low priority.

"Maybe it's sunk in that Hernando needs to protect its ... historic resources," Murphy said. "Maybe it's sunk in that a vibrant downtown will do more to stabilize our economy than subdivisions in the middle of nowhere."

Yep, maybe it has.

Banding together to reinvent downtown Brooksville 12/15/11 [Last modified: Thursday, December 15, 2011 7:21pm]
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