Sunday, April 22, 2018
Opinion

Column: Remaking Kass will take cash, commitment

Heather Olejniczak can see trash and discarded furniture from the front of her Spring Hill Nutrition store on the east side of the Kass Circle business district. She wants a community cleanup.

This isn't radical thinking. Ask the county to waive any tipping fees at the landfill. Get a trash collection company to donate a Dumpster and please haul it away afterward. Spread the word. Arm the locals with trash bags, gloves and bug spray and have at it some Saturday morning.

Olejniczak floated her notion at a recent meeting for the Kass Circle redevelopment project. Meander the Kass Circle loop and you understand her motivation. There is garbage spilling from plastic trash bags that have been dumped on vacant lots. A discarded mattress is across the street. It's not particularly better on the front side. The Spring Hill Drive median just east of the plaza is overgrown with weeds and dotted with litter.

So the immediate reaction to this suggestion? Inmates can do that, said a man sitting three rows ahead of Olejniczak during the planning meeting at the Spring Hill Library.

Therein lies the immediate obstacle to this redevelopment mission that is still in its infancy: Let somebody else do it. Without community buy-in, this thing is doomed. Likewise, if there is no investment from Hernando County commissioners, the conceptual drawings will remain just that — paper concepts instead of public commitment.

Planners are compiling a vision for this long-term effort to try to bring new urbanism to old Spring Hill. The Kass Circle neighborhood is one of the original town centers platted in the 1960s by the Deltona Corp., which lured Northern retirees to still-rural western Hernando County with modest concrete block houses outfitted with two bedrooms and one-car garages. The homes remain as do these original shopping plazas, condominiums and multi-family housing that emerged. There are 98,000 people in the wide area of Spring Hill, according to the U.S. Census, but the focus of the redevelopment is the Kass Circle area along Spring Hill Drive roughly 2 miles east of U.S. 19. It's missing sidewalks, safe traffic patterns and open space that hasn't been paved over for parking. There are some oak trees on the east side of the plazas indicating some past stab at aesthetics and shade, but this a relic of an autocentric development that is in decline.

The demographics of the immediate vicinity likely don't inspire high-end private investment in the immediate future. Check some of the names of the existing businesses: Thrift. Pawn. Dollar. Value. Economy. New & Used. Save. Consignment. They are synonymous with affordability, not extravagance or even discretionary spending. And the current owner of the main Spring Hill Plaza at Kass Circle does not intend to put more money into the complex, planners announced at the meeting.

Regardless, the redevelopment plan could include knocking down the center building of the shopping plaza and ripping up some of the paved parking spaces to create public green space. A parking garage and community center would be nearby. A spine of walkways and open space could run north to south and Spring Hill Drive would include a bicycle lane, improved intersections and slower traffic to make the entire area more pedestrian-friendly.

That can't happen soon enough for Ruth Wharton, who said a customer recently came into her store, the Book Fair, wearing a bright orange sweater. She wanted to be highly visible to the motorists while she attempted to cross the street.

Hernando Sheriff's deputies already have stepped up the proactive, community-oriented policing in the district and it would be wise for county code enforcement to do similarly. The real challenge, though, will be luring private money. The vacant storefronts mean an underperforming investment for the out-of-town shopping plaza owners, which eventually could lead to a sale of the commerce center.

If and when that happens, Hernando County must be prepared to negotiate for improvements. There could be a Kass Circle Community Redevelopment Agency with growing tax revenue earmarked for public improvements within the tax district. There would need to be substantial incentives for in-fill development and to persuade a private owner to bulldoze a building in favor of green space. Most important, there would need to be employment centers nearby to attract high-wage earners (hopefully) who can become the residents and clientele of a reborn town center.

Redevelopment is expensive and time-consuming and it can be even more difficult in an unincorporated area governed by a county commission reacting to conflicting political interests. But throwing up your hands and doing nothing is unacceptable. It can start with a community cleanup. The business owners, concerned residents and elected leaders just have to make sure it doesn't end there as well.

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