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Somber mood hits downtown

Marian Roth can stand on the sidewalk in front of her restaurant, the Splendid Garden on Broad Street in downtown, and point to several empty storefronts.

Among the most obvious: Barnett's Antiques and Collectibles, at Broad and Main streets, and Legends, a gift shop on Main, both of which shut their doors during the winter.

The dark mood of these empty businesses seems to be spreading to her own. As she discussed the opportunities in Brooksville, or lack of them, it was just after 1 p.m. Wednesday. It should have been one of the busiest times of day, but only one table in her restaurant was occupied.

"We didn't do a very good lunch (business) today," Roth said. She is considering closing in August when her store's lease runs out.

"I basically don't seem to be able to attract the courthouse people. My business is very dependent on day-trippers, and it has suffered because of a lack of parking," she said, referring to one of her many complaints about doing business downtown.

Plenty of merchants in Brooksville disagree with Roth and say that their downtown businesses are doing fine. But even the city's biggest boosters are urging the city and its business leaders to support a revival that seemed to be happening spontaneously just two years ago.

In the first six months of 1996, five new stores opened within two blocks of the Hernando County Government Center. The city seemed to be approaching a goal talked about for years: having a nucleus of stores that was interesting enough to constitute a real shopping district, a place that could draw people from outside town or outside the county.

Because at least three of these stores have closed _ Barnett's, Legends and Chez Funk _ that goal now seems more elusive.

Even so, there is some good news. There also is a disagreement about whether these closures mean that the effort to revitalize downtown is in serious trouble, or whether it is nothing more than the normal attrition of small businesses.

The final state budget, approved by Gov. Lawton Chiles last week, includes $50,000 for new street lights in Brooksville. Though the city has not decided what kind of lights it will buy, it plans to install a style that fits in with old downtown buildings, City Planner Lynne Bolton said.

And unlike an earlier installation of lights on S Brooksville Avenue, these will be in the most visible parts of downtown, near the courthouse, she said.

The city also is waiting for the state Department of Transportation to approve plans to spend $60,000 in federal money; the county's Metropolitan Planning Organization approved this money to build bulb-outs in the city in August.

Bulb-outs are fan-shaped extensions of the curb designed to slow traffic, to improve the looks of intersections, and to make them less intimidating to pedestrians.

The bulb-outs are planned for six intersections downtown, said Dennis Dix, the county's transportation planner. The state DOT needs to approve Brooksville's plans because they will affect state-maintained highways, Jefferson Street and Broad Street, Dix said.

Also, said City Council member Pat Brayton, the city should be seeking federal money to improve downtown. In recent years, the city has won two Community Block Development Grants, both nearly $600,000 to upgrade dilapidated sewer lines. The next one will go to improving downtown, Brayton said.

"That's a definite this year," he said.

But business owners also should do more for themselves, said council member Joe Johnston III, who until recently owned a store just south of downtown, the Home Brewery on U.S. 41. Groups like Brooksville Again, a collective of business owners trying to capitalize on the city's history, have staged promotions downtown and joined to pay for advertising. But Johnston thinks there should be more regularly scheduled events, so that people get in the habit of coming to Brooksville.

"Why not have a farmer's market every Saturday on the courthouse square. We still have some agriculture in the county. And one day a month, you could expand it to include arts and crafts," he said.

If downtown does not actively promote itself as a shopping district, he said, "you get what we were leaning toward several years ago, a service area: real estate, attorneys and the bank, and a couple of things that service those people during the day."

Though everyone agrees there is room for improvement downtown, Johnston, as well as several other merchants, said the business atmosphere is not that bad.

Because his business depended mostly on mail-order transactions, it closed mainly because of statewide market conditions rather than local ones, he said.

"Some of the (closings) come with just natural changes . . . it's part of the ebb and flow of businesses," he said.

Joe D'Andrea is co-owner of Old World Antiques, the oldest and largest antique store in Brooksville. Any business that depends on tourists in Florida has to expect a slow season in the summer. But Old World has been able to survive in Brooksville since 1987, he said. Businesses that fail, he said, have to accept some of the blame.

"When Splendid Garden came in, they led everyone to believe they were going to be Lunch on Limoges," he said, referring to the restaurant that has anchored the turnaround in downtown Dade City. They fell well short of that standard, D'Andrea said.

"They just aren't doing the right thing (to attract customers) and then they start slamming Brooksville."