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Downtown Brooksville as destination

The day after Thanksgiving was typically busy at the longtime local draw Rogers' Christmas House. Outside in the full parking lot was a young woman named Jessica Gay. She was working for the Brooksville Business Alliance passing out fliers for some of the stores down the hill in the typically much less busy downtown district.

"We want them to shop the whole city," Rogers' marketing boss Ann Chapman said.

Gay will be out there again on the coming Saturdays, which is part of a new, more proactive promotional push to try and get people to come to this small city's downtown to do their holiday shopping.

Those efforts, though, have led to mixed results, at best, according to many merchants. The last week and a half has been sort of a reiteration of what by now is a broken-record question here in the Hernando County seat: Why, even with a known draw like the Christmas House, and especially at this time of year, don't more folks come downtown to shop?

Monique Swann of Creative Porch & Garden on S Main Street calls that the "million-dollar question."

"I think people are so used to parking their car and making a beeline to Wal-Mart," Brooksville redevelopment coordinator Brian Brijbag said the other day in his office. "Window shopping has been replaced by mall walking. Our society now equates Christmas shopping with going to the mall."

It's not all bad. Brooksville looks a lot better than it did even five years ago.

The phone and power lines were buried. Flowers were planted. Better signs.

The Market on Main Street happens the third Saturday of every month. Next year will be the fourth full year for the market. The event had 41 vendors last month, which is almost double the number from a year ago, said Evelyn Duncan, the owner of the Antique Sampler Mall and one of the market coordinators.

The Bandshell Bash concert series is every second Saturday.

The Brooksville Business Alliance, which started as Brooksville Again in 1997, has been a leading organization in these kinds of things, and now it's bigger and a bit better organized than it has been in the past.

A Web site went up earlier this year at www.brooksvillebusiness.com.

Some stores put together a fancy coupon book.

But marketing downtown Brooksville as a place to shop - at least with any consistent success - continues to be difficult in a county that has strip center after strip center on State Road 50 and U.S. 19 and three Wal-Mart Supercenters with a fourth on the way.

At Sally Ann's on U.S. 98, Sally Petrie, the current president of the business association, has in her eclectic boutique scarves, hand-blown bead necklaces, painted porcelain figures and much more. Most of her merchandise comes straight from local artists.

"You're not going to see this anywhere else," she said.

Rising Sun Cafe co-owners Lisa Williams and Sallie Rice said last week they've noticed an uptick in holiday business with people coming in for coffee after shopping at Rogers'.

"Everybody in the city is really trying to come together to capture that market," Williams said.

For the most part, though, it's been business as usual - that is, not always a whole heck of a lot.

"I didn't see anybody bring a flier into here," Home at Sea owner Beth Crenshaw said one day last week. "I survive because of my Web site."

Ditto for Laura Wever at the Broken Mold home decor store on N Brooksville Avenue. Wever has been open for business for 14 years. She estimates that she's done 60 percent of her business so far this Christmas season on the Internet and not from walk-in customers.

And it's been really quiet down S Main at Creative Porch & Garden.

"A lot of people will come in here and go, 'Oh, I didn't even know you were here,' " Swann said. "I advertise, I send out fliers, we have coupons.

"As positive a spin as I want to put on things," she said, "that is the reality."

So she's going out of business soon.

So is Jo's Country Corner across from the courthouse.

The merchants have many theories: Too many street-level storefront professional offices - attorneys, Realtors, insurance agents. Too many trucks. Too few restaurants. Too few pedestrians. Too little life on nights and weekends.

They say the one-way streets don't help. They say there aren't enough places to park.

"But you can do your Christmas shopping here," said Brijbag, the redevelopment coordinator. "You can find gifts for everyone on your list here in Brooksville. People just don't know that."

Why not?

And what if they do? Why don't those people come?

Or at least enough of them?

"I can't give you an easy answer," Wever said. "I don't know."

"If you find an answer on how to get more people to downtown Brooksville," said Duncan from the Antique Sampler Mall, "be sure to let us all know."

On Saturday, the parking lot at the Christmas House was overflowing, of course. There were a handful of people in Patricia's Boutique. Some out-of-towners came into the Country Corner wanting to know how to get to "the Victorian houses."

Mostly, though, downtown was downbeat.

A reporter walked across the middle of Jefferson Street and onto the sidewalk by the courthouse when a tan Suburban slowed down. The driver's window opened. Inside was a fleshy-faced, curly-haired woman, and she had a question.

"Hey," she called out. "Do you know where the Wal-Mart is at?"

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

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