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East-west tension still hinders effort to unite county's business community

The contrast between Brooksville and Spring Hill _ and the tensions that arise whenever East meets West _ can be seen clearly in the effort to rally the Hernando business community behind one voice during the final preparations of the county's growth plan. The differences are apparent down to the men at the front of that struggle: Joe Mason, president of the Hernando County Chamber of Commerce, and David Laing, president of the West Hernando Chamber.

Mason is a lawyer, a fifth-generation Hernando native, a man well acquainted with politics and the public spotlight.

Laing is a banker, an Iowa transplant who came to Hernando 10 years ago, a man who has been thrust to the fore of a delicate situation.

Every major business group in the county _ from the Ridge Manor Area Chamber to the Brooksville-based Hernando Chamber to the Committee of 100 _ have joined Mason's coalition.

Every group, that is, but Laing's. Mason downplays the importance of the West Hernando participation. But many west-side business leaders are waiting with interest to see how Thursday's vote on the matter will go.

To understand the issue fully, it is important to realize the perceptions that define Spring Hill's view of Brooksville.

Many on the west side see the county seat as a closed society dominated by an established power structure of old-line families whose prominence and wealth date back decades. They believe Spring Hill residents are viewed as interlopers, upstarts who do not know their place within that power structure.

"There was certainly caste and class. There still is. That is one of the clashes between Brooksville and the west side," Hal Robinson said in an interview last year shortly after he became executive director of the West Hernando Chamber.

And for many, the 46-year-old Mason is that system personified. He is the nephew of Alfred A. McKethan, the millionaire chairman of SunBank & Trust Co. His cousin is married to James H. Kimbrough, the president of the same bank.

Various family members own thousands of acres of land _ most of it on the county's east side. Mason, a land-use attorney, represents dozens of other land owners in the County Commission chamber, where his success seems almost inevitable.

Some business people were concerned, therefore, that Mason's unification effort would be viewed as a personal crusade to save his friends and clients from the restrictions of the comprehensive plan, according to H.

M. Shirley, president of the Barnett Bank of Hernando.

"One of the concerns of the (Hernando) chamber board was .

.

. the general public would perceive this as being Joe's project. And knowing that he has intertwined involvement with Kimbrough, McKethan and other land holders and developers in the area, that was a concern," said Shirley, a member of the board.

"But the general conclusion of the group was that he was the most knowledgeable person in this market on that matter," Shirley said.

The coalition's stand on issues, he said, will be determined by a to-be-established policy committee, "not just what a handful of big businesses want."

Mason acknowledges there are those who will "shoot the message because of the messenger." But Mason, married and the father of two young girls, has guided the passage of the comprehensive plan for years, and doesn't intend to stop now.

"Why have I been so vocal about it? Let me ask you this _ who else? Answer me that and I'll gladly step aside. Who else knows the issue?"

Mason left Hernando County in 1961 for Gainesville and the University of Florida, where he studied as an undergraduate and received his law degree.

That was followed by a brief stint in Washington with the Securities and Exchange Commission, three-plus years in the Navy, then years with a prominent Tampa law firm. He returned to Brooksville in 1982.

And Mason's Brooksville perspective on the growth plan may not be compatible with west-side business interests, says Spring Hill real estate agent Pat Fleck.

"He sees the facts in his light," Fleck said. "I see the facts as other than he portrays them as at times because I'm seeing them in my light."

Like Mason, 49-year-old Laing shares ties with the McKethan-Kimbrough clan. But Laing's is purely economic _ he is a vice president of SunBank and manager of the company's Seven Hills branch.

Married and the father of a 20-year-old son, Laing left his native Bettendorf, Iowa, in 1980 to start a career with SunBank. The outspoken Fleck spoke sympathetically of the tightrope Laing must be walking between his west-side constituency and his loyalty to his Brooksville employer.

"It doesn't seem like a tightrope to me," Laing said. "I have not even talked to Jim Kimbrough on this issue."

Many west-side chamber members have seen this as an east-west issue, Laing said, and that shouldn't be. "Our time has arrived for us to be together on a number of countywide issues, be it roads, urban sprawl or whatever," he said.

The comprehensive plan will determine the county's economy for years to come, so it is essential that it allows for adequate growth, Laing said.

"It's still a beautiful county and I'm just not the type of person to say, "Now that I'm here, everything should stop.'

"

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