Drive around Brooksville and it's clear it could use some commercial investment.
You'll pass abandoned gas stations, empty downtown stores, cavernous spaces in shopping centers once filled by Publix or Kmart, and, most painfully, the closed doors of the city's former main retail attraction, Rogers' Christmas House Village.
Seeing all this, I wonder what will happen to Brooksville if a new city nearly twice its size is built 6 miles away. Nothing good, I bet.
No, this issue isn't new — suburban development drawing residents and shoppers from city centers.
"We create these fancy new communities, and the old community dries up," said Earl Starnes, a professor emeritus of urban planning at the University of Florida and the state's former planning director. It's the result of cheap land outside of cities and lax rules about developing it, Starnes said. Another planning professor I talked to years ago called this pattern "build, degrade and move on."
The twist is the popularity of so-called "new towns," complete communities with offices, stores and sometimes factories to go with the houses and apartments.
There are several on the drawing board (but not on the ground) in Pasco County. Accounting for most residents' needs, including jobs, is also the idea behind the Quarry Preserve, a planned city big enough for about 13,000 people in the old Florida Rock Industries mining pit north of Brooksville.
The state Department of Community Affairs (along with, I should add, the planning experts I talked to) like communities that do lots of things much better than traditional suburbs that just house people and maybe entertain them. In its recent report on the Quarry, the DCA cited a land use rule adopted 16 years ago — near the dawn of the so-called neo-urbanism movement — and told the project's developers that if they can build a real town, then the state's concerns about all of the ways it can cause sprawl will go away.
Sprawl is the negative side effect of development spreading over large areas. And to the department, it seems, the cure-all for sprawl is building a complete city.
As I've written before, this isn't easy.
"New cities never somehow emerge as organic communities," Starnes said.
Also, the developers of the Quarry haven't proven to DCA that they can pull it off.
But let's say they can.
Let's say critics who point out that the total amount of retail space in this country has more than doubled since 1990 and that we face a massive glut of commercial development are incorrect.
Let's ignore that neo-urban communities in Florida such as Haile Plantation and Seaside have had a hard time attracting and keeping enough businesses to work like real towns.
Let's assume there really is enough interest from the prospective owners of houses, stores and factories to create the benefits claimed by an economist hired by the Quarry, including 5,348 jobs and a total economic output of $241 million per year.
It still won't be good for Brooksville.
"These new towns come at the expense of older, established communities," said Tim Chapin, an assistant professor of urban and regional planning at Florida State University,
Chapin recently visited one of the state's more successful preplanned cities, Manatee County's Lakewood Ranch, which includes a walkable town center. It seemed pretty lively, Chapin said, and had successfully attracted chain retailers such as Starbucks that can fit in either new or old towns.
Nearby Bradenton, meanwhile, is obviously suffering, with lots of empty storefronts, he said. "There is only so much retail to go around. The new developments cannibalize the old ones."
This isn't just an economic issue. There isn't a whole lot of history in Hernando County, but most of it is in Brooksville. Our willingness to either turn our back on the city or invest in it says something about our respect for that heritage, and right now we don't have a single date-worthy downtown restaurant that stays open past 3 p.m. and serves a decent bottle of wine.
What would help? Ideally the state would make it easier to build in or near cities and more difficult to build outside of them, Starnes said. Since that doesn't seem to be at the top of lawmakers' agenda right now, at least our county commissioners should be aware of all the good and bad things that can happen if they approve the Quarry.
Because when reading through the DCA's long list of all the different ways the Quarry might cause sprawl, I came across this: "Discourages or inhibits … redevelopment of existing neighborhoods and communities."
No matter how well the Quarry is planned, it's not going to cure that.
• • •
I'm new to Twitter, but I understand it works better when you have followers. So, if you are interested in updates and thoughts about local news and want to add me to your list, I'm at www.twitter.com/ddewitttimes.