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  1. Hernando

'All roads lead to Brooksville': Will the newly completed Good Neighbor Trail extension help pave a brighter economic future?

BROOKSVILLE — A path to this city's economic future may have opened up earlier this month as a fresh streak of asphalt slicing east toward the Withlacoochee.

With the completion of a long-planned extension, the Good Neighbor Trail now stretches from downtown's Historical Trail Depot to the Withlacoochee State Trail 10 miles east. It turns the trail from a solitary line segment to a link in a chain that connects nearby cities and eventually will stretch across the state, positioning Brooksville as a key hub along the way.

"We are the epicenter of it all," said Lara Bradburn, a former mayor and city council member. "All trails lead to Brooksville."

Trail construction began nine years ago, but ideas for it gestated long before that. For Bradburn, who helped conceive of the project in the 1990s, the completion represents the fruition of decades of work. She said it shows that proponents of the Good Neighbor Trail and trails across the state have convinced people in power that trails can provide a boost to a local economy and quality of life.

"To have nobody believing it in power, to bringing everybody on board, that was a long journey," she said. "But it's incredible seeing how many people believe in it now."

The trail's completion also realized a key puzzle piece in connecting Brooksville with other cities, and eventually, a chain of trails that cyclists will be able to take across the state.

It closes one of the biggest gaps in the Coast-to-Coast Connector, which eventually will connect St. Petersburg to Titusville. That project still has some missing pieces near Brooksville: one between the Withlacoochee State Trail and Clermont, to the east; and one between the depot and the northern endpoint of the Suncoast Trail in Weeki Wachee. Bradburn said construction on the latter gap is slated for 2021.

Connecting Brooksville by trail to other Florida cities could be a boon for the city's economy, Bradburn said. It could draw cyclists and tourists from across the state and country, who will spend money at local restaurants, hotels, gas stations and grocery stores. In fact, Brooksville and Inverness will be the hubs of Bike Florida's 2019 Spring Tour. She also noted correlations between cycling and pedestrian trails and lower crime rates and increased property values.

The extension puts Brooksville in an immediate conversation with communities to the north: Floral City, Inverness and Dunnellon. Inverness City Manager Frank DiGiovanni, whose city spearheaded a tourism development effort based on a path connecting the four communities dubbed the Rock Ridge Phosphate Trail, told the Brooksville City Council last week that the connection could electrify the economy of Brooksville along with the neighboring cities.

"People are coming to you, they spend an afternoon and they're gone," he said. "But what if it were more than an afternoon? If it could become a two- or three-day trip because there are other communities linked together through the Withlacoochee State Trail, we begin to generate a pulse and generate some excitement."

The cycling community, in particular, could tap into the food, historical and environmental offerings of Brooksville and the other communities, DiGiovanni said, especially now that Brooksville is a relatively short ride from the Withlacoochee State Trail. The tourism project will continue to develop over the next year before formally launching, he said, and he expects Brooksville's necessary contribution to be less than $5,000.

Shortly after the trail extension opened, Bradburn met a pair of south Pasco County residents who'd come up to use it. "This is everything we want in a trail," they told her.

"When you hear something like that," she said, "I don't know about you, but I get pretty giddy."

Contact Jack Evans at jevans@tampabay.com. Follow @JackHEvans.

RELATED: A gap no longer? Work begins to link disconnected bike trails.

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