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First decade of the 21st century a roller coaster ride for Hernando County

The first decade of the 21st century was one of highs and lows in Hernando County, particularly when it came to the economy.

In government and education, there was a turnover of leadership — in some cases a revolving door.

There was triumph and defeat.

And we lost the man known as the "patriarch of Hernando County."

Here's a look back at the top 10 local stories from the past 10 years.

1 ECONOMIC HEALTH: It was the best of times, and the worst, for the economy in Hernando during the past decade — a reflection of what was happening across the United States.

Building permits issues for single-family homes — one of the best gauges of economic health in a place dependent on the home-building industry — hit a high of 4,185 in 2005.

The county building department had to work Saturdays to keep up with the workload.

Three years later, in 2008, the number of permits plummeted to 378 as the housing bubble burst. Through November of this year, only 134 permits had been pulled. Construction businesses felt the impact, and unemployment rose to 14.7 percent during 2009 — one of the highest rates in Florida.

Home foreclosures have risen dramatically, as well. About 6,500 foreclosure cases were filed in Hernando Circuit Court during the past two years. The county's population growth slowed too. From the 2000 census to April 2007, the population grew from 130,802 to 162,193. But the rate of growth diminished during the final years of the decade. The county's estimated population at the end of November stood at 165,142.

These falling numbers had a huge impact on the size of local government. Slower growth, declining property values and calls for lower property taxes combined to shrink government — county government in particular. Many positions were left unfilled, senior employees were given the option of retiring early, and a number of services were reduced or cut.

2 PARKWAY OPENS: Perhaps the biggest economic engine since the arrival of Interstate 75 four decades ago, the Suncoast Parkway opened in February 2001.

Running north and south through the central part of the county, the four-lane toll road provided a more direct link to Tampa and St. Petersburg.

For many, it made a daily commute to the south for work more palatable.

It also brought several housing developments to the county, with developers promoting the quick trip to Tampa. Among them: Sterling Hill, Trillium, Villages at Avalon, Hernando Oaks and Southern Hills Plantation Club.

The school district opened a new high school and two K-8 schools to deal with a surge in student enrollment.

3 MERMAIDS SURVIVE: One of the longest-running stories of the decade involved Hernando County's longtime roadside tourist attraction — the City of Live Mermaids. At the beginning of the decade, the future of the mermaids was in doubt; by the end, Weeki Wachee Springs had gone from private ownership to city ownership, and finally it became a state park.

The transformation had its roots in the sale of the spring and land surrounding it in 2001 to the Southwest Florida Water Management District by the city of St. Petersburg, which once considered the spring a potential source of water. The relationship between Swiftmud and Weeki Wachee soured quickly.

Swiftmud in 2003 threatened to shut down the park because of safety and environmental concerns. Soon thereafter, the private company that owned the attraction donated it to the tiny city of Weeki Wachee for a tax break. Fans of the attraction rallied behind Weeki Wachee's Save Our Tails campaign, a fundraising effort to help the struggling city keep the attraction open. In 2004, Swiftmud ran out of patience and took its grievances with Weeki Wachee to court.

Finally, in February 2008, after several years of legal battles, the state and Weeki Wachee general manager Robyn Anderson signed an agreement to turn the park over — for $10 — to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. On Nov. 1, 2008, Weeki Wachee became Florida's 162nd state park. As the decade ends, the state is still in the process of drawing up a plan for the park's future. And lawmakers are arguing over the merits of dissolving the city of Weeki Wachee.

4 DEVASTATING STORMS: Charley missed us and went south in August 2004.

But a month later, Hernando residents experienced their two worst tropical storms of the decade.

On Sept. 6, Hurricane Frances came ashore along Florida's east coast and passed over Hernando as a tropical storm. On the final weekend of that month, the eye of a weakened Hurricane Jeanne passed over Aripeka before it entered the Gulf of Mexico.

The storms left 49 Hernando homes uninhabitable, and 121 others with major structural damage. A total of 484 homes had some type of damage, and many residents were left without power for several days in the hot, muggy Florida summer.

It was the worst storm damage the county had seen since the no-name storm of March 1993.

5 LEADERSHIP CHANGES: Almost every unit of government in Hernando ended the decade with different leadership. And in some cases, there were several transitions.

There were five county administrators: Paul McIntosh, Richard Radacky, Gary Adams, Gary Kuhl and David Hamilton. McIntosh wore out his welcome, Radacky retired, and Adams and Kuhl — who lasted only 18 months each — both said they didn't like dealing with the negative political atmosphere in the county.

There were three school superintendents — John Sanders, Wendy Tellone and Wayne Alexander — and a new one soon to be hired.

The city of Brooksville cleaned house with the departures of City Manager Richard Anderson and police Chief Ed Tincher and the arrivals in 2007 of City Manager Jennene Norman-Vacha and police Chief George Turner.

At the Sheriff's Office, longtime Sheriff Tom Mylander did not run for re-election and was replaced by Richard Nugent. In Congress, Republican Ginny Brown-Waite defeated longtime Democratic Rep. Karen Thurman in 2002.

And, in the state Legislature, Rep. Robert Schenck, a former county commissioner, replaced David Russell, who was elected to the County Commission after having to leave Tallahassee because of term limits.

6 THE EFFECTS OF 9/11: The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City; Washington, D.C., and near Shanksville, Pa., had an immediate and lasting impact on residents of Hernando County.

Manuel Mojica Sr. of Spring Hill, a retired New York City police officer, lost his son, 37-year-old Manuel Jr., who was one of the first firefighters to respond to the World Trade Center.

Joe Holland of Spring Hill, a retired New York firefighter, lost his 32-year-old son, Joey, who was attending a meeting on one of the upper floors of one of the twin towers.

Others had cousins, in-laws or friends who died in the attacks.

As the United States undertook two wars against terrorism — first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq — four men from Hernando County were killed.

Army Staff Sgt. Michael W. Schafer, 25, of Spring Hill died July 25, 2005, while on patrol near Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Marine Sgt. Lea Robert Mills, 21, of Masaryktown was killed on April 28, 2006, by an improvised explosive device while he was on patrol in Al Anbar province in Iraq.

Army Spc. Cody C. Grater, 20, of Spring Hill, a paratrooper, died in Iraq on July 29, 2007. He was killed when a rocket-propelled grenade struck his Humvee outside Baghdad.

On July 24, 2009, Army Spc. Justin Dean Coleman, 21, of Hernando Beach died near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. He was killed in a firefight with insurgents, suffering a fatal gunshot below the rib cage.

7 BIG BOX SHOPPING: With the opening of the Suncoast Parkway in 2001 and the county's growth spurt in the early part of the decade, big retailers and restaurant chains took a look at Hernando County and liked the growing market they saw.

Three big retail centers took off.

The Coastal Way shopping center opened at Cortez and Mariner boulevards in 2000, followed by the adjacent Coastal Landing center. Sears, Belk, Old Navy, Marshalls, Kirkland's and Michaels were among the national or regional stores to open there.

Nature Coast Commons opened in 2008 at Commercial Way, south of Spring Hill Drive, and has been adding stores ever since. It includes JCPenney, Best Buy and Sports Authority, among others.

Suncoast Crossing opened late in 2008 at the Suncoast Parkway and Spring Hill Drive and includes Kohl's and the county's second Target store.

Walmart opened two new Supercenters in Hernando during the decade — one on South Broad Street in Brooksville and the other on Commercial Way in Spring Hill.

8 CHAMPION ATHLETES: Two Hernando High School graduates stepped into the bright lights as professional athletes during the past decade.

In July 2000, John Capel won the 200 meters at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team. The community raised nearly $30,000 to help send Capel's family to the Olympics that summer in Sydney, Australia. Triumph turned into despair, however, when Capel finished last in the 200 final in Sydney after thinking he had made a false start.

On the baseball diamond, Bronson Arroyo pitched his way to fame with the 2004 World Series champion Boston Red Sox. After pitching in obscurity for the Pittsburgh Pirates during the early part of the decade, Arroyo was picked up by Boston in 2003 and started 29 games for the 2004 championship team — the first in Boston since 1918. He compiled a 10-9 record with a 4.03 earned-run average and made two starts and four relief appearances in the playoffs. In March 2006, he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds.

9 A NEW HOSPITAL: After a struggle of several years, the new Brooksville Regional Hospital opened in September 2005, just west of the Brooksville city limits at Cortez Boulevard and Lykes Dublin Road.

At its opening, the 183,000-square-foot facility included 20 emergency room cubicles, 120 beds and a lot of new technology.

The original request to move the hospital from its longtime location near downtown Brooksville had come in June 2001. Then, for the next couple of years, the hospital's parent company faced protests from some residents of Brooksville and the Ridge Manor area who did not want the hospital to move farther to the west.

Also, officials of Oak Hill Hospital in Spring Hill filed a formal objection to the move, claiming the new Brooksville Regional would encroach on Oak Hill's service area.

The state finally okayed the move in 2003, and construction began in early 2004.

10 PATRIARCH DIES: There were a number of notable deaths during the past decade, but none bigger than that of Alfred A. McKethan, who died April 1, 2002, at age 93.

"Alfred McKethan was a giant in the generation that built modern Florida," then-U.S. Sen. Bob Graham said upon learning of McKethan's death.

McKethan, a lifelong resident sometimes referred to as "the patriarch of Hernando County," was named as one of the 10 most powerful people in Florida during the early 1950s.

He was best known as the longtime chairman of Hernando State Bank in Brooksville, which he sold in 1984 to what is now SunTrust Bank.

But banking was only part of his legacy.

As a member and chairman of the State Road Board, McKethan pushed for construction of State Road 50 from Bayport to Florida's East Coast and of U.S. 98 from Chassahowitzka to Lakeland.

While on the road board, he also was instrumental in getting the original Sunshine Skyway built between Pinellas and Manatee counties.

He helped choose a site for what is now Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, was the first chairman of the Southwest Florida Water Management District and helped found Florida Citrus Mutual, the grower cooperative.

And McKethan bled orange and blue.

He made several donations to the University of Florida, his alma mater, and UF named its baseball stadium in his honor.

Five other stories of note

• Two child abuse cases drew attention during the past decade. In 2004, Lori and Arthur Allain were charged with child abuse and neglect after a 10-year-old malnourished girl in their care was found weighing just 29 pounds. The abuse came to light after the girl's brother ran away from home. The Allains are serving 30-year prison sentences. In 2009, authorities charged Tai-Ling Gigliotti and her fiance, Anton Angelo, with aggravated child abuse. Authorities said Gigliotti beat her 16-year-old adopted son with a piece of wood and a plastic-tipped hose and barricaded him in a bathroom. Gigliotti and Angelo are set for trial in February.

• In October 2007, Betty Trent, former executive director of the Brooksville Housing Authority, was sentenced to two years in federal prison for stealing federal funds. Prior to that, Joe Ann Bennett, the authority's program manager, pleaded no contest to corruption charges and was sentenced to one year in prison. Trent and Bennett were also ordered to repay about $23,000 they had stolen from the housing authority. The two wrote checks for work that in most cases was never done.

• After a story in the Times in 2006 revealed extensive contamination at the old Hernando County Department of Public Works compound on Dr. M.L. King Jr. Boulevard in Brooksville, the county has spent the past several years performing tests at and in the vicinity of the compound and has been preparing a cleanup plan. Arsenic, lead and other pollutants were found in the water and soil.

• On Feb. 19, 2009, as he headed to work in the predawn hours, sheriff's Capt. Scott Bierwiler, 42, was killed when a sport utility vehicle driven by Andrew Frank Morris, a 16-year-old junior at Nature Coast Technical High School, crossed the center line and collided with Bierwiler's Ford Crown Victoria on Powell Road, south of Brooksville. Bierwiler was a 22-year veteran of the Hernando Sheriff's Office and hoped one day to become sheriff. Morris, who was critically injured in the wreck, faces charges of third-degree murder and grand theft because Morris' parents reported their 2002 Mitsubishi Montero stolen the morning of the crash.

James Rosenquist, one of the world's best known pop artists, lost his home, his studio and a good bit of his work to a brush fire in the Aripeka area on April 25, 2009. Rosenquist, 76, was not at home. The artist, who was preparing for a show at his gallery in New York at the time of the fire, has remained in the area, working in temporary quarters. But in an interview with the Times in November, Rosenquist indicated he might eventually leave Hernando County.

First decade of the 21st century a roller coaster ride for Hernando County 01/02/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 2, 2010 2:55pm]
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