BROOKSVILLE — Three years ago, a core group of Brooksville residents and business leaders came together to see what they could do to improve the fortunes of the city. The goal of the Brooksville Vision Foundation was to come up with both short- and long-term projects that would benefit downtown and other areas of town.
But some of the foundation's original stakeholders think the mission may have gotten muddied when the leadership team dived headlong into preparations for the inaugural Florida Blueberry Festival last May.
Shortly after he resigned in August, former foundation chairman Emilio "Sonny" Vergara sent an email to fellow members saying he thought the foundation had erred by not focusing more on revitalizing the city's business district.
The new foundation president says he's eager to pull together others in the community who want to work on those goals. Cliff Manuel Jr., owner and chief executive officer of Coastal Engineering Associates, assumed the role last fall with the aim of returning the foundation to its fundamental roots.
"We may have gotten a little sidetracked," Manuel said, "and in the process, some of our enthusiasm and objectives took a different turn than we had hoped. But I see good things ahead this year. I see a lot of projects coming together."
Formalizing bylaws and completing the "Brooksville 2050" plan are perhaps chief goals. Along the way, Manuel said he's looking to create more public outreach that will result in increased support from residents and businesses.
The group also needs to promote the city's standing as the county seat and a natural hub for the county's cultural identity, he said.
"It doesn't mean that I think the foundation should be viewed as Brooksville-specific," Manuel said. "There are mutual benefits for the entire county that can come from improving the city's overall image as a vibrant community that welcomes business and commerce."
The foundation has already helped to implement meaningful improvements, he said. Before the blueberry festival last year, the group led an $80,000 renovation of the downtown, county-owned Hernando Park that included a decorative fence, brick walkways, benches and fresh landscaping.
The project was done with labor and materials donated by local businesses.
Meanwhile, a group of tennis players objected to calls by the foundation and blueberry festival organizers to lobby the county to turn over ownership of the park to the city of Brooksville. The ire raised over the issue forced the foundation to reconsider its position, Manuel said.
"We weren't looking to be involved in a conflict," he said.
He now supports the idea of an agreement between the government entities, plus more public feedback about what types of improvements should be made at the park.
However, Manuel said he wants the foundation to become a leading voice in determining the city's future. And he wants to try to correct some actions that, in his view, thwart the city's ability to attract and keep businesses downtown.
One issue is the mile-long, one-way pairing of Broad and Jefferson streets. The conversion from two-way traffic was initiated by the Department of Transportation during the early 1990s to help with an increase in commercial truck traffic. The conversion did little more that strangle downtown businesses, he said.
"No downtown district that I've visited in Central Florida has a traffic nightmare like Brooksville has," Manuel said. "It's just not compatible with downtown commerce."
The foundation wants to nudge the county's Metropolitan Planning Organization this year to lobby the DOT to return Broad and Jefferson to two-way traffic through downtown.
"There are many people, business owners and citizens who believe that these are the kinds of actions that are needed to get the ball rolling downtown," he said. "And these are the kinds of projects that people want to see the foundation involved in."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.