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Finding a city's future

Interim City Manager Jim Malcolm had an idealized vision of Brooksville long before he arrived here.

While living in Rhode Island, he and his wife had dreamed for years of another home, someplace quiet, pretty and Southern.

When they visited Brooksville in 1986, they saw "trees, big oak trees, that was the first thing," Malcolm said. They saw the hills, the brick streets and old, wood-frame houses with long porches. They saw what they immediately knew would be their future home.

"As soon as Louise and I got into Brooksville, we said, "This is that small Southern town,' " Malcolm said.

But six years as Brooksville's city planner gave Malcolm, 49, lots of time to realize the city's shortcomings. The tax base eroded. Most of the brick streets remained covered with asphalt. Downtown stores were vacated. The merchants who stayed complained about downtown's shabby look and the shortage of parking.

On June 7, when the City Council named him to temporarily replace Jim Cummings as city manager, these problems became Malcolm's problems. However, he sees the job not as a burden added to his current duties as a Hernando School Board member, but rather as a chance to start the evolution of a down-at-the-heels hometown into his bustling ideal.

"When you're a staff member you think, "If only I was in charge. I'd do this, this, this and this.' And that's exactly what happened. I'm still really up about this," he said.

Spreading enthusiasm

Malcolm is the first person ever to fill the improbable dual roles of Brooksville city manager and Hernando County School Board member.

As a high school teacher for 11 years in North Kingstown, R.I., and as the father of two teenage boys at Hernando High School, education is his priority, he said. And when a new city manager is hired later this year, he intends to resign from the city and concentrate on School Board duties.

In the meantime, however, he has committed himself to drawing up a plan for the city's renovation, and to refreshing the attitude among its residents and staffers.

Malcolm's radiant enthusiasm makes him an anomaly in city hall. Amid the dim paneling, the matted, brown carpet, the scuffed asphalt tile, he is trim and upright, with neat and stylish clothes.

And while Cummings was sometimes criticized for his lethargy, Malcolm sprays around terms such as "involvement," "family spirit," "teamwork" and, most frequently, "the vision thing." He is entertaining a proposal to print promotional bumper stickers. He is thinking of having T-shirts made.

In fact, it seems as though Malcolm's three months in office will be an extended motivational seminar.

Downtown is his priority, he said. And the first step toward revitalizing it will be for staff members and the City Council to meet with groups such as the Hernando County Chambers of Commerce, the Downtown Development Corp. and the city's Citizens Task Force, which is currently meeting to find ways to reduce the city budget.

Malcolm is planning a brainstorming session of such interested parties in late June or early July. He intends to enlist school Superintendent Harold Winkler, who has expertise in organizing such meetings, to help moderate the process.

Together, all of the parties will "envision" the future of the city, he said. During subsequent meetings, a definite strategy on how to reach these goals will be formed.

Luring tourists downtown

Any plans for the future of the city are still far from materializing. But there is some consensus that, like Dade City and Mount Dora, Brooksville should take advantage of its Southern appeal and the fact that Rogers' Christmas House Village draws about 400,000 customers every year.

To attract those people to the rest of the town, the city needs trees, parking and a concerted effort to encourage new business. It may require a state-sponsored Main Street program such as the one that began the turnaround in Dade City. Tax incentives could be offered. Some have discussed floating a bond issue to pay for a parking garage near downtown. On Monday, the City Council will hear a proposed draft for a tree ordinance.

But because revenues have shrunk from $4.5-million two years ago to $4.1-million this year, one thing is certain: Such official actions cannot accomplish the entire job; no revitalization effort will work without committed volunteers.

"And they will get involved," Malcolm said, "if you sell the message and you get people to realize the potential for some of these programs."

There is a history of successful volunteer efforts in Brooksville, he said. The adopt-a-road program and the community playground built at Tom Varn Park three years ago are two examples.

Another of Malcolm's philosophies is that the city has to start somewhere. Uncovering the brick streets has long been recognized as a key to any beautification effort. It has been discussed repeatedly since Malcolm began working for the city, he said. But the City Council has been discouraged by the estimated cost of $800,000.

If that cost had been spread out to do a small stretch or a street each year, the program already would have made significant headway. Instead, Malcolm said, "I've been here six years and we haven't done anything."

Everybody's future

Malcolm is aware he has set an ambitious schedule for himself. But he is confident he will have established a real direction by the time he resigns from the job this fall.

He met with some of those involved. Most seem to have caught his enthusiasm.

"I'm very hopeful," said Brooksville lawyer Doug Bevins, who is serving on the budget task force.

"He's a very competent guy. He's got a lot of energy, and he's aware of all the things that have worked in other places."

And unlike Cummings, who in his 10 years on the job was often at odds with City Council members, especially Mayor Joe Bernardini, Malcolm so far has made no enemies on the council.

All members except Luther Cason, who argued that Malcolm was too busy with his planning job to take the city manager's job, voted for him to fill in for Cummings.

In the view of vice mayor John Tucker, Malcolm and his approach may have come at just the right time _ when the city needs real help and its residents are growing alarmed.

"Sometimes it takes a crisis to bring people together," Tucker said.

"When their city is at stake, when it's having trouble meeting expenses, I think people start to sit up and say, "What can I do for my town?' "

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