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Brooksville can transform blighted land from liability to an asset

The Brooks Villas apartments east of downtown Brooksville have been closed for about six years. The county has looked into buying the property from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

The Brooks Villas apartments east of downtown Brooksville have been closed for about six years. The county has looked into buying the property from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

You know buildings are in bad shape when blue roofing tarps would be an upgrade.

At the Brooks Villas apartment complex, which has been abandoned for six years, the tarps that once covered the roofs have been worn to tatters. Several of the roofs have started to collapse. Some of the others have collected so many dead, rotting leaves that they support thickets of ferns.

Despite the spooky beauty of the place — the towering pecan trees, the camellias and Mexican petunias planted by residents who, apparently, tried to make it a real home — these apartments need to go.

The cost of restoring the buildings would just be far more than they're worth.

The same is true of the old Hillside Estates apartments, owned by the Brooksville Housing Authority, which are just to the south of Brooks Villas. Judging from the total lack of interest at a recent auction and the amount of rotten siding visible from the street, the former Rogers' Christmas House Village is probably a good candidate for demolition, too.

Put them together and you have 45 acres of blighted, unoccupied property on the eastern edge of Brooksville — land that could funnel vitality into the city's business district and, instead, drags it down.

It's time to start thinking seriously about what to do with these parcels.

Fortunately, a few people with Hernando County and the city of Brooksville already have.

Brooks Villas, a low-income housing development financed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development program, fell back into the federal government's hands in 2012, after the private owners defaulted on their loan.

The USDA will soon put the property out to bid, said County Administrator Len Sossamon, and he has traveled to the agency's office in Davenport to talk about the possibility of the county buying the property — which it could probably get for next to nothing — and marketing it to a private developer.

A city task force, meanwhile, has placed this property on the short list of candidates for its federally funded Brownfields redevelopment program.

If it's chosen, said City Council member Lara Bradburn, there could be federal money available to demolish the buildings.

Another possibility: The state Department of Transportation tears it down, she said, along with the 91 units at Hillside Estates. That's if DOT accepts a proposal to reroute U.S. 41 near or through these parcels as part of a plan to rid downtown of its one-way streets.

The Hillsides Estates land, meanwhile, will also be available for sale as soon as the federal government gets around to releasing its claim on the title, said housing authority Chairman Randy Woodruff. It's just a matter of shuffling paperwork, he said, and should happen in the next few months.

Still, the same problem remains with this and the two other properties: They carry the financial burden of decaying buildings.

For example, the Hillsides Estates land (not including the buildings) is appraised for tax purposes at $358,000 while a 2012 consultant's study estimated the cost of demolishing the apartments at $1.1 million.

So, obviously, road money or cleanup money, or some other form of public help, is need to make this or the Brooks Villas property attractive to investors.

The good thing about public investment, though, is that it usually grants more public control.

So what do we want on this land?

Sossamon has floated the idea of mixed-use development — dense residential and a town center.

But I'd say downtown Brooksville doesn't need competition from a neighboring town center. I'd rather see strictly housing, maybe condos or apartments for people who would shop and eat downtown. I'd even be okay with an RV park, as Blair Hensley, owner of Coney Island Drive Inn, suggested, as long as the residents spend money in town.

Rerouting U.S. 41 would improve access to these properties, and the Good Neighbor Trail, which runs along the southern end of the Hillside land, is due for completion in two years. That will be another draw.

And so, eventually, will downtown Brooksville.

Land this close to the center of the city should be valuable. And, in a way, it's strange that it was ever set aside for residents who, for economic reasons, had no choice but to live there.

The first step toward reviving this property, it seems to me, is believing that people will move there or visit because they want to.

Brooksville can transform blighted land from liability to an asset 04/04/14 [Last modified: Friday, April 4, 2014 6:31pm]
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