BROOKSVILLE — His name is on the front door, and a Weeki Wachee mermaid beams from a photo on the wall. Now state Sen. Wilton Simpson is ready to get to work.
The newly elected Trilby Republican celebrated the opening of his new downtown Brooksville office with an open house Tuesday evening, mixing big ideas with small talk as constituents came to welcome him.
Renting the space at 10 W Jefferson St., catty-corner to the historic courthouse, is both pragmatic and symbolic.
The location makes sense as a second office in a district that spans all of Hernando, a large chunk of Pasco and most of Sumter counties, said Simpson, 46, an egg farmer and businessman serving in his first elected post. The other office is in New Port Richey.
But Simpson also campaigned on a vow to create jobs and breathe life into struggling areas, so opening a downtown office, he said, is a small contribution to an area full of vacant buildings.
"I don't think our economy will ever fully recover until we help our small communities, and one of the ways to do that is through redevelopment," he said.
With that goal in mind, Simpson said he wants to amend the current fire code to give landlords in smaller cities some relief from requirements he called "out of touch with reality on the ground." Commercial buildings can still be safe without, for example, a firewall built to contain flames for two hours.
"Buildings sit vacant because complying with the current code costs more money than you'd receive in rents," he said.
Another legislative goal is more ambitious. Lawmakers need to craft legislation to kick-start a shift to natural gas as a fuel for industry, Simpson said.
He envisions tax credits and other incentives to spur companies to replace gas- and diesel-powered fleets with trucks and buses that burn natural gas. The state would offer similar incentives to companies that build infrastructure, such as natural gas service stations, creating jobs in the process, Simpson said.
"It reduces our dependency on foreign oil, it burns cleaner and it's a lot more efficient," he said.
A strong supporter of Brooksville's red-light camera program, Brooksville Mayor Lara Bradburn liked what she heard when Simpson called the cameras a local issue.
But in an interview with the Times, Simpson said he is leery of putting cameras in public spaces in the name of safety if revenue is really the goal. He said he wants to learn more before taking a firm stance.
"I think the state should make sure we're not taking advantage of (motorists)," he said. "If there are hard numbers that show they're really bringing down automobile accidents, then you're trading off some privacy for your safety."
Simpson said he will work to secure funding to widen a roughly 21-mile stretch of State Road 50 between Ridge Manor and Mascotte. Hernando County officials consider the project a priority as a conduit for economic growth, and Simpson agrees, saying Sumter would also benefit from four lanes extending from the Nature Coast to Orlando and beyond.
Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association, left the open house happy after Simpson voiced support for placing sheriff's deputies in every elementary school. Simpson, a married father of two, also said closing the Internet sales tax loophole could help pay the expense.
"That would be fantastic," Vitalo said.
Simpson said increasing funding for education in general is his other top priority.
"The only way to break generational poverty, the only way to improve quality of life, is through the education system," he said.
As a representative of an area deeply affected by groundwater pumping, Simpson also plans to push for water conservation.
A gun owner with a concealed weapon permit, Simpson said he would likely not support any gun control measures at the state level. Instead, he said, the state needs to focus energy on improving mental health care.
In addition to school resource officers at every school, he said classrooms should be equipped with panic buttons connected directly to local law enforcement dispatchers to cut response times.
Giving local elections supervisors more flexibility in where they put early voting sites would be more effective than extending early voting times to prevent a repeat of November's long lines at polls, he said. And he called the two-page general election ballot, with its 11 constitutional amendments, "a travesty."
"I'm against amending the Constitution every time we have a notion," he said.
As chairman of the Senate Community Affairs Committee, which considers legislation affecting a broad range of government issues, Simpson is well placed to work toward his goals.
"I believe we're going to do these things," he said, "and the economy is going to turn around in a substantial way."
Reach Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431. On Twitter: @TMarreroTimes and @HernandoTimes.