BROOKSVILLE — Years of neglect and unfulfilled promises have made the residents of south Brooksville leery of anything government officials have proposed for their neighborhood.
That's why when County Administrator David Hamilton toured the largely African-American community over the summer and then promised to work with residents to rebuild the infrastructure there, many adopted a wait-and-see attitude.
Now, months into the effort to make meaningful improvements, some are seeing a new optimism in the community.
It's not that south Brooksville is shined up and glowing from a renaissance. The improvements that have taken place have been limited and additional projects on the horizon are small changes in a community with tremendous needs.
But the fact that government leaders have acknowledged past slights and moved forward with some improvements is enough to offer up hope.
"Before, you would have your hopes up high and then nothing happens. This time things are happening,'' said Frankie Burnett, south Brooksville resident and long-time advocate for his community.
Even as Hamilton was pitching the idea of creating a Community Initiative Team to focus on neighborhoods in need such as south Brooksville, a long-planned project to repave and stripe the critical community road, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, was completed.
It was the first of several visible improvements.
Hamilton pitched his committee idea to the County Commission and there was support.
"Given the long history of the area and its culture, we recommend a plan that places community concerns and responsibility as paramount,'' Hamilton wrote in his report to commissioners.
"With careful attention to the very special and unique culture of south Brooksville, this once dynamic area could return to a new level of vibrancy, but it will require its residents to lead the county and other governmental entities to rebuild much of the infrastructure that is needed to provide a safe, desirable place to live and conduct business.''
Hamilton appointed the team, composed of county employees from various departments and community representatives. He argued it was a way to help the residents of south Brooksville help themselves.
He also saw the formation of the committee as a way to try a new team approach to helping communities in need all across Hernando.
With the committee at work for several months now, Hamilton said he is pleased with the gradual progress he sees in the community.
"We need to continue to build on those little successes,'' he said. "We will build a momentum of positive change in south Brooksville.''
Taking care to honor the community feeling is important, Hamilton said. "We're not there to erase south Brooksville. We're here to help it rise,'' he said.
"This is something that I really feel good about,'' said County Commissioner Rose Rocco, a committee member.
She said the committee's approach was to make sure progress is visible.
"My feeling is that we do things that are doable so that nobody gets discouraged,'' Rocco said. "Let's just do one thing at a time.''
That is what the county has done.
Recently, a contractor hired by the county removed about 800 cubic yards of contaminated sand and soil from the site of the county's old Department of Public Works compound in the middle of the neighborhood. That work is the starting point of a clean-up project that has dragged on for years.
The county recently completed what officials hope is the last phase of water and soil testing on the site, which is polluted with remnants of chemicals and fuels once stored there.
Once the county's assessment is approved by state regulators, officials will submit a formal plan for the cleanup, according to Gregg Sutton, assistant county engineer,
Years of delays in that process have been a large part of the disillusionment that residents of the community have felt for their government.
Hamilton demonstrated his strong support for completing the project when he included the delays as one of the reasons why he disciplined public works director Charles Mixson in August.
Also in the works for the area are planned improvements to Kennedy Park. The county is seeking a $200,000 grant from the Florida Recreation Development Assistance Program and matching that with another $200,000.
Proposed improvements include construction of a T-ball field with sports lighting, bleachers and a press box, and playground equipment, a large picnic pavilion with lights, a new entrance off Emerson Road and 61 parking places. The county expects to hear whether it will receive the grant by mid 2009, according to Pat Fagan, parks and recreation director.
New sidewalks are another recent improvement.
Plans are also complete for the Hernando County Sheriff's Community Center for the neighborhood. The county is expected to soon seek bids on the project, according to Sheriff's spokeswoman Donna Black.
Earlier this month, the County Commission approved spending $15,000 to secure access easements on a number of lots with drainage issues.
Brooksville is a partner in that process, as they have with the other infrastructure projects under way in the neighborhood. A portion of south Brooksville is within the city limits.
While much of the work done to help the neighborhood has been about visible upgrades, one action by the commission in October is about more long-term solutions.
Commissioners approved a package of business development incentives to try to help lure businesses into the county. One of those was a special carrot for companies interested in the Enterprise Zone in south Brooksville.
Any business moving there would receive a $3,000 bonus for every job it creates that would pay the average wage.
That kind of help is just what Burnett said his neighborhood needs.
"The whole thing in my opinion and in my experience is to try to get some economic development into the area because I believe that with economic development comes everything else,'' he said.
Burnett, a former vice mayor of Brooksville and a member of Hamilton's committee, said he is seeing his neighbors are noticing what is being promised now is taking place.
He meets with residents to encourage them to let go of the past sins of officials who allowed their community to deteriorate. Instead, he urges them to help solve the problems side-by-side with county and city leaders.
"We have to stop concentrating on what happened in the past and start anew,'' he said. "These are the problems that we encountered and here is what we can do to make it better.''
Rocco said the real proof of progress will be as residents themselves fully participate in the process and she is seeing signs that is beginning.
"You are starting to see people wanting to clean things up for themselves,'' she said. "That's bringing the community pride back in them.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.