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Downtown Zephyrhills poised for renovations

(ran PC edition)

The council meets tonight to discuss whether it should apply for a grant for more streetscaping.

The city's first streetscaping project, completed earlier this year, drew raves for enhancing the look and feel of the downtown area.

But it was criticized by merchants who complained construction drastically reduced business.

Now city officials are proposing a second phase, only this time, they say, the project, while costing just as much, will be less intense and won't affect business.

The proposed renovations are focused primarily on extending the revitalization district three blocks east on Fifth Avenue, but they also include plans to improve sidewalks on secondary streets and spruce up the facades of downtown businesses.

"We'd just like to extend the redevelopment district a little bit," said City Manager Steve Spina. "This is the heart of our community. This is what makes us unique."

Tonight, the City Council will hold the first public hearing to decide whether to apply for a $600,000 redevelopment grant from the state Department of Community Affairs. The hearing is the first item on the agenda for the meeting, which begins at 6 p.m. at City Hall.

The grant proposal, unveiled for the first time last week, includes a promise that the city will kick in $370,000 of its own money for the project.

Council members in March gave preliminary approval for city staffers to draw up detailed plans for what the grant would pay for.

This is what Spina and his staff came up with:

Spending an estimated $270,000 on improvements along Fifth Avenue between Ninth and 12th Streets. Those improvements include new brick sidewalks, antique streetlights and landscaping.

New brick sidewalks along portions of Sixth, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth streets.

Purchasing land downtown, tearing down a building on the property and replacing it with a parking lot.

And offering $176,000 to downtown business owners for facade improvements. About eight buildings will be eligible for up to $20,000. Building owners would be required to pay a 10 percent match to receive the funding.

The application for the grant must be submitted to the DCA by May 31. Spina said construction on the $970,000 project, provided the city receives the grant, could begin next spring.

The first phase of the project cost $1.1-million and focused primarily on revitalizing the Fifth Avenue business district between U.S. 301 and Ninth Street. Construction took place during the busy winter shopping season and prompted angry protests from several shopkeepers who said the closing of Fifth Avenue for four months nearly forced them out of business.

But now, business owners say, the improvements are drawing more people downtown and, as a result, sales are up. Many shopkeepers say they support the city's proposal to extend the renovations.

"If they can get the funds to do it, why not?" said Marvin Matteson, owner of K&M Travel on Fifth Avenue. "It's a wonderful idea. I just hope we can get some more businesses downtown that people will want to come to."

Debbie Spanger, who owns a downtown interior decorating business, agreed:

"Even though (the first streetscaping phase) was a hardship for business owners, I think that anything the city does to improve downtown is a step in the right direction."