BROOKSVILLE — In recent years, county commissioners have grown accustomed to a sea of unhappy faces — constituents about to lose their favorite perks to the budget ax.
This year has been the worst, as the commission has considered closing parks and, after several years of discussion, finally deciding to shutter the Little Rock Cannery.
But there has been a noticeable change in the tenor of the audiences at commission meetings recently. Some of those anxious faces are now standing side by side with county staffers, working to keep parks open and ensuring that, for years to come, there will be a place to can local farm products.
Last week, one of those faces belonged to Theresa Cunningham, who stood with land services director Ron Pianta as he explained how a group of citizens had come forward to create a nonprofit organization to save Stewy's Skate Park.
Cunningham's group was one of three that stepped up to save Pioneer Park in Spring Hill, where the skate park is located. County officials lauded her organization because "they're giving the kids a direct tie into the park,'' said recreation coordinator Harry Johnson. "That gives them ownership in the park.''
The nonprofit that will operate the park will have a board comprised of nine of the park's regular users, ages 16 to 25.
"The kids will be responsible for making sure that the volunteers are doing what they are supposed to be doing, checking and making sure that no one is there who shouldn't be there,'' Cunningham said.
She said there is a real plus to that idea.
"These nine kids are going to learn the responsibility and the politics of running a nonprofit,'' she said. More importantly, everyone who uses the park will now have more peace of mind about its future, even though organizing the takeover has been a lot of work.
"It's going to be worth it in the end,'' Cunningham said. "Every year, the park has been up for cuts, and now the kids won't have to worry about it every year.''
The group already has three local companies that have volunteered mowing services. One fundraiser is already complete, and there are plans for more. There is also a desire to help the community around the park by making some of the county's social services available there as well, Cunningham said.
Another county park will likely land in a different sort of operating arrangement.
The Brooksville Vision Foundation made a pitch to the Brooksville City Council on Monday to explore having the city absorb the 1.3-acre downtown Hernando Park on Fort Dade Avenue. The group sees the park as a prime spot to hold events such as art and music festivals.
The foundation's plan involves operating the park through a public/private partnership that would focus on holding between 30 and 40 events a year. It would also serve as an entertainment venue for the first Florida Blueberry Festival in Brooksville next May.
"We think that the park can be a nucleus for things to happen in the city," foundation member Cliff Manuel told the council.
Tucked between the county's main library branch and a post office, the former city park was once a major downtown hub for youth and senior activities, with features that include a band shell, tennis and shuffleboard courts, and a recreation center.
Another possible park closure that drew lots of attention was Ernie Wever Youth Park, just north of Brooksville. But, with help from the Hernando Youth League, it appears the park will survive this year's budget cuts.
The league has agreed to pay $25,000 per year for the next five years to keep Ernie Wever maintained, Pianta told the commission last week.
The county's Tourist Development Council is also kicking in $25,000 for sports marketing and field maintenance in county parks.
Recently, Ernie Wever hosted a major youth baseball tournament, and officials touted how important future sports marketing could be in drawing new people to the county.
An agreement has already been signed allowing the Hernando County Fair Association to take over Lonnie Coburn Park on Oliver Street in Brooksville. Because the park was named for a fallen sheriff's deputy, representatives from the Hernando Sheriff's Office have stepped forward to help with maintenance.
The county continues to talk with local churches about having them take over operation of Hill n' Dale Park, east of Brooksville, and there is a plan to add boat ramp honor boxes for fees at Lake Townsen and Nobleton Wayside parks in the northeast part of the county. Honor boxes for fees have also been proposed for the horse trails at Lake Townsen and the swimming area at Linda Pedersen Park in Hernando Beach.
Two groups have stepped forward to save the Little Rock Cannery, north of Brooksville, from closure. The Hernando County Historical Museum Association has been talking to the county about taking over the building and operating it as a museum — since it was originally a schoolhouse — and as a seasonal cannery.
Another group has also voiced an interest and will meet with county officials this week to explore another option. The County Commission is set to consider choosing a new operator in early August.
Internally, county officials have also continued to tweak the Parks and Recreation budget to find the most efficient way to run the department. Several key staff members, including longtime parks chief Pat Fagan, left during the past year, and the vacant positions have been cut.
Under the current plan, three permanent part-time employees will take on the load that had been handled by six full-time people.
"This staffing concept could allow for more efficient scheduling of maintenance staff, offset the decline in maintenance standards and achieve an overall savings to the general fund for personnel services in the parks budget,'' Pianta wrote in a memo to County Administrator David Hamilton.
With all of the new partnerships and changes, Pianta told commissioners that all the department needs to keep all facilities open for 2011-12 is an additional $122,000.
Hamilton told commissioners that, after a recent visit to several of the county's more passive parks, he was interested in again exploring the possibility of using dollars already collected in the environmentally sensitive lands fund to help maintain those parks, which he said are environmentally sensitive.
"On the one hand, we have millions of dollars'' in the fund, Hamilton said, "and yet we're closing parks.''
Pianta said there are still legal questions about whether the use of that fund for the parks is appropriate, and there are policy questions as well. The same idea was brought up by Commissioner Wayne Dukes during last week's meeting and by Commissioner Dave Russell on several occasions.
Hamilton said that talks with the community about how to keep the parks open are continuing and he would keep the commission informed.
One good thing has come from the painful exercise, he said:
"I'm thankful for the rise in community spirit.''
Staff writer Logan Neill contributed to this report. Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.