SPRING HILL — When professor Trent Green looks at Spring Hill Plaza, he sees what he sees in a lot of Florida communities.
The plaza has been in decline, and with it the surrounding Kass Circle neighborhood. That is partially because the center was "never a place to come and spend time," Green says. "It's a common phenomenon.''
But Green, who has had help from dozens of local business people and residents, can envision a better future for the neighborhood.
The vision includes paths for pedestrians and bicycles, open green space, a safe pedestrian crossing on Spring Hill Drive, new kinds of businesses, heightened security and a place for people to gather for events.
The Kass Circle Neighborhood Revitalization Project, which began with a public workshop in February, is moving into its next phase.
Two months ago, more than 75 people dropped by a vacant storefront in the plaza to say what they thought the neighborhood needed. Captured in drawings, Post-it notes and lists, the ideas have been compiled by Green's Florida Center for Community Design & Research at the University of South Florida.
At 4 p.m. Wednesday, in the Spring Hill Branch/Harold G. Zopp Memorial Library, Green will give a presentation on what changes and improvements that input has encouraged. He will present a draft plan for further discussion.
"What we've tried to do is translate (the suggestions) into concrete ideas and notions,'' Green said. "A lot of it is really broad-based ideas of what people would like to see there.''
The county obtained a $20,000 grant from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity for Green's study, and county planner Patricia McNeese said picking Kass Circle as the focus made sense. It was the first mixed-use, multifamily hub envisioned in the original Spring Hill master plan.
The plaza, Spring Hill's first shopping center, was built in 1967, and McNeese said she has heard for some time from residents that the area needs to be updated. Many have expressed concerns over the growing number of vacancies there.
"This shopping center is at a tipping point," Green said. "It could just go completely vacant because of the loss of tenants. At some point the property might even change hands.''
The key to bringing it back, he said, is to transform it into something unlike newer plazas along roadways such as U.S. 19, State Road 50 and Mariner Boulevard.
Part of that comes from buy-in by the private sector, Green said, but "much of what we're proposing is going to require some investment on the part of the county."
For example, Spring Hill Drive is a county road, and one hope voiced over and over by residents is that it can be made safe for pedestrians. Some way to calm traffic is needed there, Green said.
Safety in general was a common theme voiced by those attending the earlier meeting. Some in the audience questioned why there was no one from the Hernando County Sheriff's Office in attendance. Since then, McNeese said, she has been in contact with a lieutenant who patrols the area, and he has expressed interest in participating in the revitalization project.
At the end of the initial meeting, Green urged participants to organize so they could support a plan as it evolves. The final report on the plan is set to go to the County Commission in late May.
That means funding for some of the public portions could be considered in the county's 2014-15 budget, officials have said.
Cynthia Oakes was one of the local business people who gave input and urged people to come meet with her so that they could coordinate their support. But she said last week that only one person had come to see her.
Still, she said it was good to see someone listening to the community.
"A lot of people had a lot to say,'' Oakes said.
"I'm very glad that I stopped by and had some input,'' said Heather Olejniczak of nearby Spring Hill Nutrition.
Olejniczak said she wishes more younger people, including residents in the apartments near the plaza, would have attended to offer suggestions. And she believes that more sharing of information on social media might have produced a more representative mix of ideas. But she said she is excited about what the project could mean for the future of the Kass Circle community.
"It really is an amazing opportunity to have a say in what should be happening in our area,'' Olejniczak said.
Doug Brainard came to the earlier meeting to see what it was all about and left thinking something good could come of the planning process. He plans to return for Wednesday's follow-up meeting at the library.
"I've seen a lot of change, and not all of it for the good,'' said Brainard, a 40-year Spring Hill resident. "I'm encouraged to see them trying to stop the downhill slide of that area.''
While Brainard believes the county should have done more to keep up the neighborhood over the years, he says the latest effort holds promise.
"It really feels like an opportunity to have a real community center for our area,'' he said, "because we really don't have anything.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.