BROOKSVILLE — Where once there was nothing but a vacant lot, Hernando Sheriff Richard Nugent has laid the foundation for the rebirth of an oft-overlooked neighborhood.
After a number of years and several delays, Nugent and the Hernando County Sheriff's Office have finally delivered on their promise to build a community center in south Brooksville on the east end of Dr. M.L. King Jr. Boulevard.
"It's been a long time coming," Nugent said last week in his office. "But it's finally going to happen. And we're excited."
The Sheriff's Office will host a grand opening of the center at 10 a.m. Wednesday, the first opportunity for residents to get a glimpse of the new 1,600-square-foot building. The center will be dedicated to the first black deputies hired at the agency under former Sheriff Sim Lowman, some of whom are scheduled to make an appearance or be represented by family members at the ceremony.
The building will officially open its doors Dec. 7, when Shiloh Problem Solvers, a local nonprofit organization that formed in late 2008, begins offering a series of after-school activities and a mentoring program there.
Shiloh will manage the center instead of the Sheriff's Office because of recent budget cuts to the agency that forced Nugent to eliminate a number of his coveted programs and close five community substations.
After the Sheriff's Office budget for 2009-10 was set in September, Nugent had warned that there would not be enough money to operate the south Brooksville center.
But last week, Nugent said the department will be able to afford an estimated $1,000 a month in utility costs at the building after shifting around money in the budget and eliminating energy inefficiencies at the Sheriff's Office.
"We're looking at a number of things," Nugent said. "Right now, we're sort of robbing Peter to pay Paul."
And that's where Shiloh plans to step in to fill the void.
From Monday through Friday, Shiloh will staff the building with volunteers and offer programs and activities for both children and adults. The hours will be 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
In the morning, Shiloh will invite Career Central, the state Department of Children and Families, and the Veterans Administration into the center to offer services and information for older residents of the neighborhood.
In the afternoon, Shiloh plans to roll out a number of its after-school activities and an ambitious mentoring program. The mentors would be recruited from faith-based organizations, schools, the NAACP, the local African-American Club, law enforcement and other organizations.
As part of the program, mentors will go through screening and training — abuse reporting, conflict resolution, orientation to juvenile delinquency — and then make a one-year commitment. Children selected for the program must agree to come to the program every day, stay in school, spend a minimum amount of time every school day completing homework and stay out of legal trouble.
Pastor Clarence Clark of Shiloh will supervise the mentor program.
"This is our opportunity to prove to the county, the sheriff and the community that we can get in there and do the right thing," Clark said. "We plan to utilize the building to the best of our ability."
After decades of neglect and waste in south Brooksville, government officials and community activists believe the center is a chance to start a renewal in the crumbling neighborhood.
"I think it's a great site and it's very important to the community," Brooksville Mayor Joe Bernardini said. "It shows that there's investment in that area."
Since his re-election in 2004, Nugent has eyed the 1-acre lot near the corner of Dr. M.L. King Jr. and E Jefferson Street as the site for his project. He's always thought of the building as a gathering spot for residents instead of a sheriff's substation, and has taken great pains to not refer to it as the latter.
The cracker-style building was built with money seized from drug busts — about $280,000. It has a room full of desks and chairs, a handful of laptop computers provided by the Sheriff's Office and four large flat-screen TVs that were donated by Walmart.
Nugent is proud of the building, but has plans for much more. He envisions a day when there's a playground, basketball courts, a deputy who will work at the center full time. Maybe weekend hours.
"The opportunities are endless there," Nugent said. "We hope it becomes the model for other community partnerships."
Joel Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 754-6120.