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Construction should begin soon on the first major shopping center in years, one of many good signs.

The 20-acre site at the corner of Cortez and Mariner boulevards doesn't look like much yet - just a dirt lot dotted with some signs and a handful of bright yellow earth movers.

That will soon change.

Hernando County residents are brimming with anticipation at what will be the first major shopping center to open in Hernando in several years, a project that includes such big-named tenants as Bonefish Grill, Hobby Lobby, Mattress Firm and the Vitamin Shoppe.

Construction is expected to begin soon, with openings beginning later this year.

But the Cortez Commons shopping center is only one of a number of commercial projects on the horizon in Hernando, and one of the most prominent signals that the county's battered commercial real estate market has weathered the worst of the recession.

"You're going to see even more development," said real estate broker Buddy Selph. "There's going to be a lot of growth in Hernando County."

Selph said he is seeing commercial projects continue to crop up, with more businesses expanding, taking over vacant storefronts or building from scratch. Activity this year definitely is up from last, he said, after years of stagnation.

"We're seeing that really continue on," he said. "There's been a lot of commercial activity that is going on."

Across the street from Cortez Commons, Beacon Stadium Cinemas is expanding, adding three new movie auditoriums, including one with a super-size screen. Access Healthcare continues to expand. New restaurant chains, auto parts stores and discount shops have recently opened their doors.

A number of businesses have moved into vacant spaces across the county.

Earlier this year, Sears Hometown & Outlet Store moved into a long-vacant 40,000-square-foot space formerly occupied by Publix in Brooksville. A packinghouse operation recently relocated from Tarpon Springs to a 20,000-square-foot building on Ayers Road near Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport.

Now, a Massachusetts company that refurbishes and manufactures industrial baking equipment is planning to expand at the airport. Baker Parts signed lease papers in March and is hoping to begin to bring its expanded operations to the county this month.

"We're seeing where a lot of existing spaces are getting purchased and being put into production," Selph said. "You don't have near the vacancy."

He said these facilities often offer the biggest and best bargains.

But while new businesses and projects are springing up, the number of commercial building permits being pulled remains relatively low.

Only 31 commercial permits were taken out during the first two months of 2014 - only four for new commercial structures and 27 for commercial additions, according to county records.

That's slower than during the same time last year, when the county issued 16 new structure permits and 45 for additions and alterations.

Commercial business made a bit of a comeback last year. The year saw a slight uptick in permits for new commercial structures, while commercial additions dropped.

Danny Valentine can be reached at or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.