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Downtown Dade City chooses the right path

Janet and Ed Brodie live in Ontario and visited downtown Dade City in early February. Like many visitors to this community, they raved about how Dade City has managed to preserve its small-town feel while still offering a variety of interesting shops and restaurants. The best public relations professional could not have said it better: Everyone they met was pleasant, the salespeople were helpful, the food delicious. The Brodies say they can't wait to return and plan to tell friends about their newfound winter retreat.

Anyone who has lived here for a while probably has heard similar sentiments. We are fortunate to call this place home, and most locals will fight hard to protect it. County and City commission meetings in the past few months have provided ample evidence of that. The recent decision by Dade City leaders to begin making Seventh Street a city street is another example of the city's determination to preserve its appeal.

Though some merchants are understandably concerned about the possible loss of traffic, downtown Dade City is already the kind of daytime destination visitors will continue to seek and find. The creation of attractive gateways into town, a goal of city officials and downtown leaders, will further ensure that travelers don't miss the muffins at Lunch on Limoges or Cuban coffee at Tropical Breeze. Rerouting the state highway around downtown will allow the city to slow traffic on Seventh Street, giving drivers more time to see something that might make them stop.

The timing of the transfer, coinciding as it does with the state's plans to resurface Seventh Street, is an opportunity for the city to reap the benefits of state assistance without the pitfalls of state control. The Department of Transportation's proposed design for Seventh Street would have eliminated as many as 111 parking spots downtown. The $1-million road project, including new sidewalks and drainage improvements, still will be done, but the transfer allows the city to protect its already limited parking. As Mayor Hutch Brock noted at a recent commission meeting, the addition of thousands of new homes within the city limits means more parking will be needed, not less.

Although parking was the impetus for the road transfer, the benefits go beyond asphalt. Local control of Seventh Street will give the city the ability to make the downtown even more attractive and pedestrian-friendly. Decorative street lights, wider sidewalks, and more options for landscaping, beautification and signs are all possibilities.

Of course, the desired improvements to downtown will not come cheaply. Transferring the road will increase the city's annual maintenance costs by $40,000 to $50,000, but tax-increment financing available through the creation of a Community Redevelopment Agency in 2001 can be used to offset these costs. The CRA was created specifically to pay for physical and economic improvements to downtown. As property values in the CRA district rise, the increase in property tax revenue is earmarked for improvements in the district. So far, Dade City has not spent much of the roughly $140,000 generated through the CRA each year. This is the perfect time to make good use of those dollars. Over the next few months, Downtown Dade City Main Street will be working with the city to identify cost-effective improvements that can be made with CRA funds, as well as possible new sources of revenue.

Downtown Dade City already is a good example of a thriving and successful small town center. The Florida Main Street program, a division of the Bureau of Historic Preservation, refers to downtown Dade City as one of the crown jewels of the statewide Main Street effort. With a commitment to preserving and enhancing the beauty and charm here, Dade City will continue to live up to that endorsement.

Amy Ellis, a former St. Petersburg Times staff writer, is the executive director of Downtown Dade City Main Street.