The Taco Bell signs planted in the sand off State Road 50 tell drivers the half-built store is "Now hiring!" and that it will soon be open for business, ready to doll out burritos and cheesy nachos.
But the signs say something more to developers:
Commercial business is finally returning to Hernando County.
After a years-long siesta during the nation's economic downturn, numerous commercial projects throughout the county are now under way, adding businesses, jobs and hope that the area has seen the worst of the recession.
"I think it's a sign," said real estate broker Buddy Selph. "It's the tangible proof that the economy's turning around."
Hernando has seen a precipitous drop in the number of commercial permits issued in recent years compared with 2006 and 2007. Together, those years saw more than 2,000 permits issued for new commercial property and permits for additions and alterations.
The next five years saw fewer total permits than those years — combined.
Between 2008 and 2012, the county only issued 1,686 of the two types of commercial property permits.
The permits bottomed out in 2011, a year that saw only 29 permits for new structures and 209 for additions or alterations. That's more than 80 percent lower than 2006.
Through the first two months this year, the county has issued 16 new structure permits and 45 for additions and alterations.
Developers feel a change in the commercial climate.
Selph easily rattles off a host of projects.
There's the Taco Bell at 13390 Cortez Blvd. in Spring Hill. The Burger King at the Western Way Plaza in Spring Hill. Two new O'Reilly Auto Parts are in the works. There's Rural King — the Illinois-based store that bills itself as "America's Farm and Home Store" — that is set to move into the vacant Kmart store near Timber Pines in Spring Hill. The host of new Dollar General and Family Dollar stores.
"There's a lot of activity," Selph said.
He estimates it's the most in six years.
Realtor Gary Schraut agreed, saying he hasn't seen business so good in at least five years.
"We are seeing some very good market activity," Schraut said. "Obviously, we're still in some challenging times."
One possible reason for the rebounding commercial activity, he suspects: impact fees.
He said the lack of fees, which are one-time levies on new construction to pay for infrastructure, have "motivated people to get back in the game."
In addition to single-store projects, some bigger commercial prospects are coming together, Schraut said.
A group of local investors operating under the name of Hafcortez 17 is in the process of developing a 17-acre plot along the south side of State Road 50 west of Mariner Boulevard that could be home to a medical office building and at least five retail sites, potentially housing anything from a gas station to restaurants, Schraut said, who is working on the project.
He said he didn't think Hernando County had seen any tracts of new commercial development that large in several years.
Danny Valentine can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.