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Rogers' Christmas House Village in Brooksville deserves help

Rogers’ Christmas House Village and Brooksville are one and the same to many outsiders. Business isn’t what it used to be, and a movement is afoot to create a nonprofit to run it.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Rogers’ Christmas House Village and Brooksville are one and the same to many outsiders. Business isn’t what it used to be, and a movement is afoot to create a nonprofit to run it.

Before Madelyn and Roy Dombrow left their home in Wesley Chapel on Black Friday morning, they punched "Brooksville'' into their car's GPS.

Then they hit the "places of interest" tab, and "right there on top was the Christmas House," said Madelyn Dombrow, standing in the store's entryway, surrounded by drifts of artificial snow.

"They aren't thinking of closing, are they? If they close it, what will Brooksville be known for?"

Probably not much.

Rogers' Christmas House Village put Brooksville on the venerable predecessor to the Global Positioning System device — what people used to call "the map." As for the city's other places of interest, none have the potential to draw a half-million people a year, as the as Christmas House reportedly did during the 1970s and '80s.

"We would be losing our biggest landmark," said Michael Heard, assistant to Dennis Wilfong, who holds the grand-sounding but unpaid position of Brooksville's ambassador of commerce and employment.

The Christmas House's importance to the city is the reason the two of them have come up with a plan — still "in the incubator stage," Heard said — to form a nonprofit organization to save the Christmas House.

This came about as Heard, co-owner of Silverthorn County Club, tried in recent months to sell private investors on the idea of buying the Christmas House, which is on the eastern edge of downtown.

All of them told her they didn't see how the store could make it as a business, but several said they'd be willing to help if it were run as a nonprofit. Heard and Wilfong have not yet created the tax-exempt organization and are not ready to name the prospective donors.

They also don't know how much money the nonprofit group needs to raise to buy the property from current owner Weiland Rogers, nephew of founder Margaret "Weenie" Ghiotto.

But with the real estate market in the shape it is, they hope to be able to negotiate a reasonable price (and Rogers said Friday that he's willing to listen to offers).

They have also formed a plan to compress the Christmas business into one or two of the five houses on the property, which would leave the other buildings available for related gift, clothing or antique stores.

The rent from the owners of these businesses — including, possibly, George Rodriguez, who has operated the Christmas House for 18 months — would pay for maintenance. It would also go toward resuming part of the marketing campaign that made Ghiotto a local legend and her business nationally famous.

When Wilfong, who recently visited Columbus, Ohio, mentioned where he was from, he got a reply familiar to any longtime Brooksville resident: "Oh, that's where the Christmas House is."

But we won't be hearing that for long unless somebody steps in to fix the place up. So, even though Rodriguez said he has no plans to close the Christmas House, it needs saving. That's especially true if, as Heard envisions, it will bring in enough customers to feed neighboring businesses and add vitality to the rest of the downtown shopping district.

Fortunately, the Christmas House was packed on Friday. Unfortunately, that forced me to find a spot in the back parking lot, where the potholes are large enough to support waist-high weeds.

Walk inside, look at the frosted branches and cotton snowbanks, and you still get the sense of magical transformation needed to persuade people to drive to Brooksville and pay more than they thought possible for Christmas ornaments. Look down, though, and you see stained, threadbare carpeting.

There is skunk vine in the flower beds and mildew and peeling paint on the outside walls of the houses, and, inside one of these houses, a leaky roof that has forced Rodriguez to seal off a large room.

"You're talking $30,000 or $40,000 to repair a roof, when it's not mine?" said Rodriguez, who rents the property from Rogers. "Are you crazy?"

He said Rogers needs to make the repairs. Rogers said that Rodriguez is operating on an 18-month-old rent-to-own agreement that calls for him to buy the property "as is."

Whoever is right, the bigger problem is that the business isn't bringing in enough money. Which is why, skeptical as I am of the idea of running a business as a charity, Heard's idea is worth a try.

Judging from the turnout on Friday, the Christmas House still has the power to draw people who seem to crave a shopping experience that, as Dombrow told me, "gets me in the spirit."

But the Christmas House needs help, because one busy day is not nearly enough to put it in the black.

Rogers' Christmas House Village in Brooksville deserves help 11/28/09 [Last modified: Saturday, November 28, 2009 12:52pm]
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