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Neglected area of Brooksville sees signs of renewal

Construction workers have begun repaving and restriping Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, one of the efforts by County Administrator David Hamilton to improve south Brooksville. The street runs through the middle of the neighborhood.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Construction workers have begun repaving and restriping Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, one of the efforts by County Administrator David Hamilton to improve south Brooksville. The street runs through the middle of the neighborhood.

BROOKSVILLE — South Brooksville residents have heard it all before.

After decades of neglect, government officials have a new solution to make life better in the deteriorated and depressed neighborhood.

They heard it when Hernando County won a multimillion-dollar federal block grant in the 1980s — money that was squandered on consultants and engineers.

They heard it when the county began testing its old Department of Public Works site with a promise to clean up the polluted soil and water. Years later, the testing phase is still not officially over, and contamination remains not just on the site but in the neighborhood.

They heard it when the entire community was designated as an enterprise zone, yet none of the promised business revitalization has taken place.

So one might expect a healthy level of scepticism now that County Administrator David Hamilton has announced a "South Brooksville Initiative.'' But something seems different about this effort.

Brooksville Vice Mayor Frankie Burnett, a lifelong resident of the area, said he has cautious optimism. Some of it comes from Hamilton's willingness in his short time in the county to engage the residents of south Brooksville in a discussion about what they need.

But there are also concrete signs that some small renaissance for the area could be coming.

Burnett points to the start of the long-overdue repaving and striping of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, which runs through the middle of the African-American neighborhood, frequently referred to as the Subs, short for Negro Subdivisions.

The county road is surrounded by the city of Brooksville, and the two entities are funding the project together. Burnett sees the work as symbolic of the new willingness to work together, both from Hamilton and from Brooksville City Manager Jennene Norman-Vacha, a former county employee.

More improvements are on the way.

After several meetings in south Brooksville where Hamilton heard the county blasted for foot-dragging on the DPW cleanup, he pushed for the county to begin the process, even though the state hasn't yet signed off on the testing the county has done to date. County officials anticipate beginning to remove the surface soil soon.

In addition, because some have complained that people in the nearby neighborhood have been sickened by the contamination, Hamilton has asked the county attorney's office to examine the record of the testing to see if there is any evidence of that.

None has turned up so far, according to County Attorney Garth Coller.

On Tuesday, Hamilton will ask the County Commission to approve a new "community initiative team'' and, if approved, south Brooksville would be the first initiative undertaken because of the extensive needs there.

"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 said he sees the initiative team, composed of county employees from various departments and community representatives, as a good vehicle to help the residents of south Brooksville help themselves. He also sees the committee as a way for the county to try out a new team approach to helping communities in need all across Hernando.

Burnett is pleased by all those developments, but said it is Hamilton's willingness to come into south Brooksville and talk to residents that has been most encouraging. Late last month, he walked the community with Burnett and other area leaders, looking at the trash clogging the drainage ditches and visiting residents in their homes to hear their complaints.

Other administrators had been invited to take "the walk,'' but only Hamilton did, Burnett said.

"That's impressive,'' he said.

On that walk, Burnett told Hamilton about his community, where the children would play, where the grocery store used to be and the school. Hamilton even stopped by a local establishment for ribs, which he reported were delicious.

The administrator said he walked away with a better understanding. While it is important to try to keep a sense of community in south Brooksville, "all the touchstones of the community are missing,'' such as the old school and business district, Hamilton said.

Burnett said the hope is that, with the city and county working together with the community, some plan for redevelopment can be determined. Everything is on the table, even an idea debated several years ago for an industrial park, near the rail line, which would have required the relocation of some residents.

But Burnett said relocating residents will only work if people are given the real value for their property so they can take what they've invested and find a place to live elsewhere. Many of the forefathers of the today's residents landed in south Brooksville because that was where old zoning laws required black residents to settle.

Much of the rhetoric from outspoken community representatives has been focused on the sins of the past. Burnett said he wants to see the discussion move past that — for the county and the city to acknowledge past slights, but not dwell on them.

"Don't concentrate on what happened. That's history. Let's get past that stage,'' Burnett said.

That is in line with Hamilton's initiative as well. "Our focus will be on the future as we move away from the past,'' he said.

Wayman Boggs, president of the Hernando Chapter of the NAACP, said he has been encouraged by Hamilton's interest.

"Mr. Hamilton has already demonstrated that he will commit his time to the project,'' Boggs said.

When the administrator walked the community, he seemed surprised by just how much was substandard and how much work lies ahead, Boggs said.

"He has certainly been interested in finding out what the real problems are in the community,'' Boggs said. "I don't think he's disingenuous. He seems really concerned.''

Burnett is working on getting the community to buy into the neighborhood improvement idea. At community meetings, he has told his neighbors that they need to start taking some pride in their surroundings. While the trash piling up on the sides of the road may not have been dumped by people in the community, they should still make the effort to pick it up and make their neighborhood look better.

Even if they have a rundown house, they should try to keep it neat and show that they care about their neighborhood, Burnett said.

He said he hopes that Hamilton continues to follow through, and he finds comfort in knowing that the administrator wants south Brooksville residents to be the ones who help settle on solutions.

"The people are ready for a change, ready for someone with authority to do something with an area that has been overlooked for years,'' Burnett said.

"We've had promises and more promises. We are all just really waiting to see if this one is true.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Neglected area of Brooksville sees signs of renewal 07/20/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 22, 2008 4:59pm]
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