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Downtown jail debate divides Inverness

Local historians may one day point to Feb. 20, 1990, as a key date in the evolution of downtown Inverness. "It was then," they may write, "that the City Council made two decisions that reshaped the town."

On Tuesday, the council will consider two proposals: A plan by the county to construct a jail complex for 400 inmates and a program to pump new life into the dormant central business district.

Some see the proposals as incompatible. A huge jail, they say, would give the city a "concentration camp" image that would drive away the very shoppers the city hopes to attract.

A jail would not only eat up large parcels of land which city officials have designated for future commercial growth, they say, but it also would put that much more prime land into government hands and take it off the tax rolls.

But others see the jail as a magnet for lawyers and visitors who would eat lunch at downtown restaurants, spend money in an array of shops and maybe even settle nearby.

Citrus County commissioners have decided the new county jail should be in downtown Inverness. But before any ground is broken, the city must give several approvals, including a zoning change and a change to its comprehensive plan. Already, all five city council members have said they have reservations about locating the jail downtown.

The county is under a court order to build the jail by October 1991 to relieve overcrowding at its existing jail, which also is in downtown Inverness.

Although council members have noted that the deadline does not apply to them, there still is little time available for any detailed analysis of the site. The jail decision, then, may come down to the community's hazy vision of what the historical hub of the county could and should be.

The city's own comprehensive plan, a blueprint for the city's growth, is not specific. The plan mentions where, but not what kind of, commercial growth is preferable downtown.

"I'm putting all my eggs in the basket that the county seat is going to remain in Inverness," said Council member Walter Cannon. "I want to preserve downtown for that purpose."

Courthouse Square would continue to be ringed with law offices, title companies and bail bond shops. But Cannon said he hopes more gift shops, stationery and general merchandise stores would settle downtown.

The business district would be "deteriorated" by having a 400-bed jail, he said. "I certainly do not like a jail per se in the middle of a business district," he said.

"I'd like to see (downtown) be the center of commerce like it used to be," said Barbara Young, who owns Jim's Watch Shop downtown. "I've been to several places where they redeveloped it like a quaint little village and it really attracts people in there."

There could be specialty clothing and jewelry shops, she suggested. "It's got to be something unique and different. You've got to pull business back from the shopping centers to keep us alive."

A new jail would not be out of place, she said. "It would help because it would bring more traffic into the area, which would help businesses," she said.

Mrs. Young is a member of the Downtown Development Committee, which has asked the University of Florida to draw up a plan to redevelop downtown.

If the City Council approves that idea Tuesday, the city would then create a special redevelopment fund to pay for downtown improvements, such as building renovations, landscaping and sidewalks.

The money for improvements would come from the additional taxes that would be generated by increased property values. As downtown buildings started to look better and better, property values would rise. The extra tax money brought on by those changes would go toward improving the properties.

The Citrus County Chamber of Commerce has offered to pay the University of Florida the first $2,000 installment of the $16,000 contract.

"Upon the implementation of this plan, we in effect have a map on how we should proceed," said Charles Davis, who represents the Chamber on the Downtown Development Committee.

"Other than maybe sweep the streets or something, there has been no definite plan of attack to draw commercial entities back down there," said Don Stevenson, chairman of the Inverness Planning Commission.

"I have never thought of having a jail downtown," said Stevenson, who is vice chairman of the development committee. "All the work we have been doing is for revitalizing commercial areas."

Stevenson said he has not decided yet if he wants the jail. "If I feel it would undermine all the work we've done, I certainly wouldn't be in favor of it," he said.

Several years ago, council member Leonard Giordano proposed a beautification program for Cooter Pond. "There could be a fountain, benches and a trail. Maybe there could be a restaurant on an island out in Cooter Pond. But with the jail going there, that may put a crimp on what can be done with Cooter Pond."

Council president Pete Kelly said there had been "a little thought" put into building a pier on Cooter Pond or a boardwalk around it.

"The jail plans probably wouldn't affect that at all. But people may not be interested in walking there with a jail site sitting there. People have a fear of jails."

The new jail could be "attractively done and landscaped properly," Kelly said, "but it's not going to bring people to the downtown area."

People visiting the jail "are not coming to shop. They're coming to see someone or they're coming to work. It wouldn't be something that would necessarily bring commercial activity to the downtown area."

Approving the jail site north of the Sheriff's Operations Center on N Park Avenue would force the city to look westward from Courthouse Square into a residential neighborhood as the area for future commercial expansion, Kelly said. The proposed jail site, where a dozen homes now stand, had been targeted for such expansion. "We were trying to tie all the downtown in one area," he explained.

Giordano believes that with or without the jail, downtown Inverness will bounce back. Through the comprehensive plan process, the state is "forcing communities to centralize. That's going to bring people to Inverness. There is going to be some growth."

The jail, he said, would bring workers into the area. "The negative impact is that properties would be displaced and taken off the tax rolls. Who knows what would have gone into that area that would have generated revenues for the city and county?"

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