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Brooksville merchants feel the pull

Published Oct. 6, 2005

Call it the flight of the dollar.

In the past year, at least three businesses have either closed or moved out of downtown Brooksville: La Boutique, an upscale women's clothing and jewelry store, Vern's Imports, a car repair shop, and Woodside Photography.

There may be more. Brooksville Jeep Eagle owner George Gould says he's thinking of moving to Spring Hill within the next two years.

Some, like Sims Furniture, are keeping their stores open in Brooksville but planning to expand outside the city, in the more lucrative west Hernando/ northwest Pasco market.

The loss of merchants and lack of retail expansions locally comes at a bad time for city planners, who are trying harder than ever to revitalize the city's downtown.

"It causes me a great deal of concern," said Brooksville Mayor John Tucker. "A complete city is the people and the businesses that provide the services to the people. If we don't have a strong business community that provides services for the people, then the consumers leave and the city fails."

Why the exodus of merchants from Brooksville?

Some blame the one-way streets that run through downtown. Merchants and city officials have been lobbying the state Department of Transportation and Gov. Lawton Chiles to return Jefferson and Broad streets to their original traffic patterns.

The one-way streets have made it more difficult, and in some cases treacherous, for drivers to shop downtown.

"We're trying to turn it around because the one-way streets didn't help us," said Beverly Lewis, owner of Lewis Office Supply & Gifts on N Main Street and past president of the Downtown Development Corp. "It has reduced traffic levels at downtown businesses."

La Boutique owner Mary Peyton closed her store at 408 W Broad St. in January. She continues to operate her two other stores, in Spring Hill and Inverness.

Peyton said she had planned to move the business to a smaller site with more parking space, but the change to one-way streets last year "forced us to do it faster than we were going to."

The more fundamental reason why merchants are leaving Brooksville or expanding elsewhere is economic: Most of the population and commercial growth is on the west side of the county, in Spring Hill.

Mike Woodside owns Woodside Photography, which used to be on W Jefferson Street in Brooksville. He moved the store to 7076 Mariner Blvd. in Spring Hill for two reasons: Mainly, he was worried about the impact of the one-way streets, and he knew that Spring Hill was a bigger market.

"A lot of our clientele is from this area," he said.

Gould, of Brooksville Jeep Eagle, said he is considering moving his car dealership to State Road 50 in Spring Hill in the next two years.

Such a move makes business sense because most of the dealership's customers come from that area, he said. "Obviously, that's where it's going to grow because the west side is where everything is building."

Mayor Tucker said he intends to discuss with Gould some incentives the city is considering to keep merchants in the city, including lowering tax rates.

Another Brooksville car dealership, Register Chevrolet, Geo & Oldsmobile, hopes to open a satellite dealership on SR 50 near Brookridge at a former First Florida Bank branch, general manager Tom Wiley said. No opening date has been scheduled.

"It's purely economics," Wiley said. "We need to get closer to the population of the county. I can talk to people who have lived in Spring Hill for seven years, and they don't even know we're here."

Others expanding westward include Sims Furniture, one of Brooksville's oldest family businesses. The owners have said they plan to open another furniture store in north Pasco along U.S. 19 this summer to cater to west-side customers.

The owner of Mykonos II, the popular Greek, Cuban and Italian restaurant on E Jefferson Street in Brooksville, might open an additional restaurant on the west side, but hasn't decided when or where, restaurant manager Mary Smith said.

"We do have a number of our customers who come to our restaurant from the west side," Smith said. "All of them have said, "We wish you could come closer.'


Given the westward pull, is it a lost cause to try to keep merchants in Brooksville? Tucker doesn't think so.

"We have to remember that even though 75 percent of the county lives in the west county, we still have 25 percent who live in the east county, and these people have to be served," Tucker said.

He said the city will begin "visioning" discussions in March in which planners, merchants and chamber of commerce representatives will try to come up with an identity the city should strive for.

Once that has been defined, it will be easier to determine in what ways the city can help merchants stay in Brooksville, Tucker said.

Part of the visioning process will be to identify what types of stores can thrive.

City Manager Jim Malcolm said specialty shops, such as candle stores and boutiques, would thrive in Brooksville. Improved street appeal, such as wider sidewalks and trees, also would create a better climate for shoppers, he said.

"We have to make it attractive so that (downtown) catches people's attention," Malcolm said.