SPRING HILL — More sidewalks and bicycle lanes, a community center for various events, a greater law enforcement presence, and retail tenants moving in rather than out. Those are among the desires of residents and business owners in the Kass Circle neighborhood.
Hernando County government and the University of South Florida invited community members to share their vision for the area during a daylong workshop Saturday. More than 60 people stopped by Spring Hill Plaza to do just that.
The workshop was the first step in what the county has termed the Kass Circle Neighborhood Revitalization Project.
The result was dozens of suggestions on Post-it Notes and numerous drawings of ideas for change traced over large maps of the neighborhood. To professor Trent Green of the Florida Center for Community Design & Research at USF, those materials and the tales told to his team by dozens of interested people will form the foundation of a plan.
"This is the start of a long-term process,'' Green told those gathered for the start of the workshop. "This is a vision to the Board of County Commissioners, to give the county a road map, a basis for any type of future investment."
While many of the suggestions dealt with the privately owned Spring Hill Plaza — Spring Hill's first shopping plaza — Green said that once the county has adopted a vision, "that, hopefully, will get the private sector on board.''
Not everyone was ready to rush into a visioning exercise. Some wanted to know whether the county was planning to take over the plaza, why Kass Circle had been targeted for revitalization, whether tax dollars were going into the project, and which county officials stand to benefit from the exercise.
County planner Patricia McNeese explained that the county had applied for a grant through the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. The $20,000 grant will pay for the planning of potential improvements. Kass Circle was immediately considered the perfect location, she said.
The area was the first mixed-use, multifamily hub envisioned in the original Spring Hill master plan, and the plaza was built in 1967. McNeese noted that the county has heard from a number of residents and business owners about the area and its need for updating.
Some have contacted the county with concerns about public safety, crime, abandoned properties and the shopping center, which has a growing number of vacancies.
"This area has just been let go,'' said Ruth Wharton of the Book Fair, on Kass Circle. She said some elderly residents in the neighborhood do not drive anymore, and because of traffic patterns in the area they cannot safely walk to the nearby businesses.
Having done business in the area for 30 years, Wharton said, "I'm all for seeing this done.''
Heather Olejniczak of Spring Hill Nutrition thanked the team for coming and initiating a public discussion about the declining plaza. She used the meeting place for the workshop — the storefront that had been Paesano's Italian Bakery — as an example of why the neighborhood needs help.
"This was a successful business once upon a time,'' Olejniczak said, "and now it's gone.''
Others in the audience questioned why no elected county officials were present. But McNeese pointed out that the purpose of the workshop was to get the community's ideas.
The USF team is to come up with a plan that would go before the County Commission by May. Sometime before that, Green said, he will take the proposal back to community members so they can confirm that it reflects the issues they raised.
The timing should work out well, Ron Pianta, assistant county administrator for planning and development, told the Tampa Bay Times. If the commission accepts the vision in May, it would come at a time when county staffers are seeking feedback about 2014-15 budget priorities. Some of the problems community members addressed are public safety and infrastructure projects that would be in the county's purview.
Pianta said he was excited about what could come of the visioning effort for Kass Circle.
"There's a lot of real potential,'' he said Saturday as he observed the process.
Eric Pohlman, one of the graduate students working with Green's team, has done several similar visioning workshops, and said they often have a common theme. While residents want their community to grow and merchants want their businesses to flourish, there is often a disconnect between the groups.
The team's job is to fit all of their desires into a common vision so both groups understand that the improvements will benefit everyone, Pohlman said.
By the end of the seven-hour session, the suggested improvements on Post-its filled nearly an entire poster. The suggestions painted a picture for Kass Circle that doesn't exist now — flowers, trees and decorative bushes, a venue for musicians and local artists, a common facade on the retail center, fewer signs, a co-op garden and "bike paths that don't get people run over.''
The potential improvements, and many more that were suggested, give the Kass Circle neighborhood a chance to build a stronger community and provide a deeper sense of place, Green stressed with participants. He urged them to prepare to bring a unified voice to the County Commission this spring.
There is no money set aside for making the improvements, Green said. "This is just the beginning. Once a vision is in place, you as a community decide what to tackle first, and then you go after funding.''
Government funding, grant money and even revenue that might be generated by establishing a Kass Circle community redevelopment area are possibilities, he said.
Whatever happens, he said, the community has to stay involved.
"The vision plan is not our plan," he said. "This is your plan, and you've got to get organized."
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.