BROOKSVILLE — As the morning sun climbed toward noon, Pierre DesJardins was busy unpacking boxes filled with knickknacks when a familiar face came through the door of Easy Street Home Decor.
He stopped his work to chat and to let the woman know that, yes, the store was open and that he had a lot of new inventory that she might want to look over sometime.
Moving his business from its former location about mile south on E Jefferson Street back to its downtown location on N Brooksville Avenue at E Jefferson Street had more to do with personal contentment than economics. Though he certainly welcomed the opportunity to reduce his overhead, being part of what he sees as a promising business environment was just as important.
"We missed the energy that you find at downtown," DesJardins said as he wiped dust from a countertop. "I missed the people who would just drop in for a visit or to get to know you. I feed off of that."
Specializing in what he calls "shabby chic," DesJardins and his partners, Maria Greene and Dana Reuter, think their business fits its location. Somehow, downtown Brooksville, with its sleepy Southern charm, fits well with the notion of selling vintage art deco, retro furniture and bric-a-brac.
Although the current economic climate makes for formidable challenges in a small-town business, DesJardins and his partners are banking on the positive signs he has seen. Though retail stores are scarce, restaurants such as the G.M. Bistro and the Rising Sun Cafe are thriving. People come downtown on weekends to enjoy the weekly farmers market and the monthly Bandshell Bash and Market on Main Street.
"It's all good," said DesJardins. "It's very positive."
Still, things could be better, and DesJardins is banking on the hope that people like him with a strong entrepreneurial spirit will join in someday.
So does Dennis Wilfong, the city's newly appointed ambassador of commerce and employment. He sees the downtown district as an enclave of future hope that is ripe to attract new restaurants, retail shops and art galleries. All that is needed, he said, are people with the right vision.
I think the seeds of success have already been sown," said Wilfong, a longtime area businessman who was appointed to the volunteer post in January. "What we need now is to make the downtown more attractive to people who want to start new businesses and find ways to bring more customers downtown."
Wilfong has been soliciting ideas and has found two key concerns among merchants: traffic flow and short-term parking.
"I think one of the problems is that one-way streets tend to bring people through town past businesses. They hardly get a glimpse of what's there before they're gone."
As for parking, that's a more complex matter, Wilfong said. With the county courthouse in the center of downtown, it's difficult to free up parking spaces during daytime hours. However, he hopes to present a plan to the city in the near future that will serve both the public and private sectors fairly.
DesJardins agrees that city officials could do much more to focus on making Brooksville's downtown more retail friendly. He cites the success of small towns such as Mount Dora, Dunedin and Winter Haven, all of which have adopted codes that devote most ground-floor space to retail and restaurants.
"People go to those places because they know they'll be able to spend the entire day walking around and will have lots to do while they're there," DesJardins said. "Imagine what Brooksville would be like if we did that."
Since moving to Brooksville six years ago, DesJardins has been instrumental in helping the city realize its business potential. A former president of the Brooksville Business Alliance, he was part of the original committee that organized the popular Bandshell Bash free monthly concert series. He also organized Treasure Hunt on the Hill, a sort of scavenger hunt sponsored by area businesses to lure more people downtown.
Wilfong said reviving Brooksville's downtown will likely be an incremental process that can be done more quickly with a concerted effort between public and private interests.
"It takes people who are willing to pull together and make it happen," he said. "That process has already begun, and in some cases is working. And that makes me optimistic about the future."
Logan Neill can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1435.