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SunTrust Bank doesn't need Brooksville building, but does Hernando County?

My recent tour of the SunTrust Bank building in downtown Brooksville ended at Alfred McKethan's old first-floor office — the place where he gave marching orders to bank officers and at least a few county commissioners over the years.

It looks as if hasn't been touched since he died in 2002.

McKethan, who ran the bank and its forerunner — Hernando State Bank — for more than five decades, was also a big contributor to the University of Florida, so much so that he was named an honorary letterman in 2000. A framed orange "F'' is mounted on the wall above his desk. So is a photograph of McKethan with Ben Hill Griffin III in a box seat at the UF football stadium named after Griffin's father. On another wall is a picture of former Gov. Fuller Warren, who appointed McKethan chairman of the State Road Board in 1949.

It's a nice gesture, setting aside this prime real estate to honor McKethan. But it's not as though space is a precious commodity here.

Less than a decade ago, as many as 80 employees worked in the three-story, 33,000-square-foot building at the corner of Main and Jefferson streets, said McKethan's successor, Jim Kimbrough, chairman and chief executive officer of SunTrust Bank/Nature Coast.

Now it's more like 20, Kimbrough said, and during the tour he walked past mazes of empty cubicles and down corridors with vacant offices on either side.

It was slightly spooky to see two large, modern employee lounges on the second floor. You could picture the lunches, coffee breaks and conversations that took place here not too long ago. Now, there isn't a single person working on the entire floor.

Obviously, the bank isn't writing as many mortgages as it was a few years ago. That's one reason for the job cuts at this location, Kimbrough said. But mostly it's due to the consolidation of duties in distant offices and the growth of online banking. These days, some people come into the lobby to open an account and never come back.

So, as my colleague Barb Behrendt reported last week, Kimbrough has offered to sell the county the bank's headquarters, as well as surrounding parking lots and a smaller building on Fort Dade Avenue, for $4 million. One plan is for county offices to move to the bank building, leaving the Hernando County Government Center for judges and courtrooms.

On the plus side, this would keep courts and offices in downtown Brooksville, giving downtown a fighting chance of survival. Also, the building appears to be in good shape and is definitely solid.

"This will be here until the cows come home," Kimbrough said several times, knocking on solid hardwood doors or patting one of the trademarks slabs of black marble.

On the other hand, when it comes to empty halls and darkened rooms, the judicial wings of the government center almost rival the SunTrust building. There are reasons for this, including that a lot of scheduled trials end in plea deals, but I'm skeptical that the courts really need more space and am mystified that this keeps popping up as a top spending priority when the budget of just about every other county operation is up for slashing.

Do I have any theories as to why this might be? Well, as we learned with the Tallahassee Taj Mahal (and no, I'm not suggesting this situation has anything else in common), judges have a lot of pull.

And so, of course, does Kimbrough.

He said he doesn't need to sell the old building. Maybe not, but he doesn't need the building itself, either. Unloading it and building a smaller office nearby would be a good deal for the bank. And who else might he unload the building on? Other than the county, I can't think of a single candidate.

SunTrust Bank doesn't need Brooksville building, but does Hernando County? 02/15/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 15, 2011 8:11pm]

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