New center signals Hernando's investment in black community

Here is Hernando's version of police investment in the black community circa 1964: Make the newly hired part-time deputy drive his personal vehicle as a patrol cruiser. Hey, at least the Sheriff's Office paid to install the emergency lights.

Fast forward 45 years, and the notion of law enforcement's community investment goes significantly beyond red, white and blue emergency lights for Deputy Willie Brooks' car.

Today, it is symbolized by the Hernando Sheriff's Office newly christened South Brooksville Community Office and, more importantly, a community determination to better the quality of life in the long-neglected neighborhood known as The Sub.

"You wouldn't think about something like this back then,'' Brooks, 78, said this week just after the ribbon cutting at the community office.

The place opens for business Monday. Eight years in the planning and execution, it is 1,700 square feet of space to serve as a visible law enforcement presence for both Brooksville Police and Hernando deputies. But its true purpose is to serve as a community center with programs through the Shiloh New Beginnings Pillar of Truth Ministries.

Inside, the Dell laptop computers are obsolete for police use, but still functional for children (and adults) to hone their computer skills. Technology is just one part of the plan. There will be mentoring for the kids, employment help from Career Central and other programs administered by the Dawn Center, which assists victims of domestic violence and abuse.

It means kids won't have to get to a library branch for computer access, said Brooks, and the new building will provide space for the children to interact with like-minded youths who want to learn. In other words, away from an element that might not be so civic-minded. Or, as Sheriff Richard Nugent put it, without the center and the planned activities, the kids "will be doing things that none of us will be happy with.''

The youngsters can even learn about Brooks. Four days ago, Nugent honored Brooks and his late partner, Lee Lawson, for their roles in integrating the department in 1964. Their pictures and plaques commemorating their careers will hang inside the building.

Brooks spent seven years as a part-time deputy patrolling, serving warrants and transporting prisoners. That meant he was the guy called out after 2 a.m. because Lawson didn't have a car. The community isn't being so stingy with its resources this time.

Nugent envisioned the substation/community center after neighborhood meetings in 2001 indicated the public wanted a police presence more visible than the former substation tucked away on School Street. The department looked at dilapidated buildings in the area, but decided it was best to build from scratch. It snagged the empty lot for $20,000 and started planning.

Nugent hoped it could be built through donations. Ted Smith did the architectural drawings and Nick Nicholson donated his engineering services, but the offers of free help disappeared after that. Instead, the department used money seized from drug dealers via forfeiture laws to build the $300,000 structure. Later, the Walmart Distribution Center donated large-screen televisions.

Providing a drab cinder-block exterior wasn't an option, "then it looks like you don't care,'' said Nugent. Instead, the old Florida cracker-style appearance with a green metal roof and white fenced exterior porch stands out in the stretch of Martin Luther King Boulevard.

Across the road sits the Elks Club, its chain link fence decorated by a banner proclaiming "NFL Live. Every Sunday'' and just down the street are vacant industrial buildings and the contaminated and abandoned site formerly used by the county's department of public works. The fenced DPW property and its "No Trespassing'' warnings are the symbol of government neglect that this community center could start to reverse.

"It's not a quantum leap,'' said Shiloh's Pastor Clarence Clark, "but a step in the right direction.''

Indeed. Just ask Brooks.

"Already, it has helped a whole lot,'' he said, "and they haven't even used it yet.''

New center signals Hernando's investment in black community 12/05/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 5, 2009 3:08pm]

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