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Grumbles greet new snack bar

Today, finally, Edgar Culbertson will begin frying eggs and serving sandwiches at the Division of Blind Services snack bar on the third floor of the Hernando County Government Center. Culbertson, who is legally blind, said he moved to Brooksville on Nov. 20. Since then, he has had to wait while workers got the building ready and installed equipment.

"I thought I would be able to go to work right away," he said. "I've just been real, real anxious to get started."

Some downtown restaurants, however, have looked on the opening with dread.

"It's not fair competition," said Wanda Varvaresos, co-owner of the Towne Deli, 273 W Jefferson St. She said she resents the fact that her tax money is going to support a store that will sell the same things she and her husband, George, sell, but at a reduced rate. "It's like sabotaging our own business."

The Varvaresoses are the most vocal critics of the snack shop. But even they are more resigned to its opening than they were in early December, when they first learned the snack shop was coming.

"It doesn't look like there's anything we can do. We can't even get an appointment with any of the commissioners," she said.

Dec. 6, the Varvaresoses and Bill Bell, owner of the Main Street Eatery, 101 N Main St., circulated a petition claiming that the snack shop has an unfair economic advantage over their restaurants. The snack shop pays only a token fee for rent and nothing for utilities. Its equipment is paid for by the Division of Blind Services, a state agency. The division also handles the shop's bookkeeping chores.

Bell planned to present the commission with the petition, which was signed by 160 local businesspeople. But he decided to drop the issue because the publicity had hurt his business.

Instead, Bell and his attorney, Tom Hogan, worked out a compromise with county commissioners and the Division of Blind Services.

"It's not that I have anything against the Blind Services. I just don't want them in direct competition with me," he said.

Culbertson, who will have one assistant, has agreed not to sell frozen entrees or soup, as he originally had planned. He still will serve sandwiches, salads, drinks, snacks and some breakfast food.

"I'll be starting at minimum tilt, not full tilt," Culbertson said. He said he hopes eventually to expand his menu. But "we'll have to wait and see. You have to play it cool."

Culbertson had been out of work since September, when the building in Tallahassee that housed his old stand was closed. Lately, he has been busy stocking racks with food, ordering inventory and otherwise getting things ship-shape.

It is something he has done several times before. He has done similar work for about 15 years in Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio, before starting in Tallahassee in 1984.

Stands such as Culbertson's employ about 250 people across the state. New Deal legislation passed in 1935 allowed the stands to be operated in federal buildings. A state law passed in 1978 required state-owned buildings to allow the stands to operate and encouraged local governments to allow them.