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No one to dance with

One of the state's highest marriage rates, almost 62 percent, makes single life in Hernando tough.

[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
The single crowd enjoys the music in the early morning hours at Scores Sports Bar & Grill on Spring Hill Drive. Scores is one of the few places for singles to meet.

By JENNIFER LIBERTO
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 6, 2002


Swaying hips in time to the trill of loud techno, the kind that so often lingers in the body hours later, Peter Evon gently tugs a blond clad in skimpy black a tad closer to his shredded cargo pants.

His shaved head bounces around the dance floor, as he slides from partner to partner -- even though men outnumber women at this Spring Hill club, at a margin that creeps upward with the approaching morning.

The 28-year-old oozes charm and confidence, a useful combination for enjoying single life in Hernando County.

"It's easy to be single here, if you're not picky," says Evon with a wink and a smile.

It's 1:15 a.m. early Thursday morning at a slammed Scores Sports Bar & Grill on Spring Hill Drive, and a few hundred of Hernando's singles are awake and on the prowl.

Hernando County's meager singles' community ranks among the smallest in the state, looking at the numbers.

Roughly 42,000 residents, or 38 percent of those 15 and older, live without a spouse, according to 2000 census data. The census category includes single, divorced, separated, widowed, and those married but living apart.

The number of singles actually rose since the 1990 census, when the county clinched the No. 1 marriage rate in the state. Nearly 7 of 10 residents were hitched. Now the percentage has dropped to about 62 percent.

Despite the increased availability of dates, single people say finding that special someone is the challenge of their lives.

"It's hard to find anyone, because there are no places to hang out," said JoAnne Laureano of Spring Hill, who has been separated for a year and is getting a divorce. "It's all bars, and I'm really tired of that kind of scene."

Laureano, 42, joined the Hernando YMCA to meet people.

And for those as picky as Evon, the quest is even harder. The chatty, muscular bachelor is recovering from the demise of a 21/2-year engagement ("She robbed me of every dime I had," he lamented) which, luckily enough, coincided with the opening of Scores, where he has become a fixture through his nightly and near-fanatical visits.

He doesn't expect Scores to deliver the woman of his dreams, who would never have been married and have no children. But no harm in looking, he says.

However, the number of those 18 and older who have never married is a mere 11 percent of Hernando's population, or 12,000 people. Of those, 55 percent are men.

"I know she's not here. I'm going to find her at a gas station or grocery store or something," said Evon, who works at a car dealership and lives with his younger half-brother, Richard Keating.

More reserved than his older brother, Keating is quick to point out that the census marriage statistics do not reveal which marriages are happy or even faithful. He admits to a fear of commitment.

"Sure, there's a lot married, but do you know how much cheating is going on?" said Keating, 24, who has blond hair and schoolboy looks, except for a lip piercing. "It's rare, you find a real marriage out of love. So many are out of convenience, money, looks. It's scary."

The number of single residents rose throughout Florida over the past decade, while the number of married residents fell to 51 percent in 2000 from 54 percent in 1990.

The increased number of people marrying later in life contributes to that statistic, said Susan Hoerbelt, a sociology professor who teaches at University of South Florida and Hillsborough Community College.

The average age of marriage has gradually increased over the years, to about 25 for women and 27 for men. More young adults share Keating's sensitivity about relationships, because so many grew up watching failed relationships and marriages, she said.

"My students have seen so much junk in marriages," said Hoerbelt, who wrote American Families: Contemporary Portraits. "They're very skittish and very selective about their relationships."

Hernando's consistently low singles rate reflects tendencies among young adults to leave such rural areas, Hoerbelt said. They move to areas that boast better-paying jobs, universities and colleges, as well as other single people, she said.

"It's just kind of slim pickings," said Hoerbelt, who studies interpersonal relationships. "You've got a lifestyle in Hernando County that single people aren't drawn to. It's a lifestyle that draws people who want a safe and quiet area and cheap land."

Indeed, the number of people living without spouses in more urban Pinellas and Hillsborough counties comprise half the population of both counties.

Jennifer Kreiling lives among them.

Kreiling grew up in Spring Hill, but moved to Clearwater for "better money," she said. The Collegiate Funding Services employee drives 90 minutes north to Spring Hill to hang out with old friends and hit the Hernando bar scene, which she prefers to Tampa and Clearwater night life.

"I don't know, I just love it here," said Kreiling, 21, whose tight black jeans and black shirt, make her popular eye-candy at the male-dominated Scores.

Many Hernando singles have given up on finding someone at the nightclubs and have created their own hot spots.

For example, each night a dozen or so sweaty singles can be found working out late at both Gold's Gym and the Hernando County YMCA, with one eye checking out the new faces that happen by.

Like Laureano, they have exhausted the bar scene and would rather meet someone who shares similar values of health and exercise.

"I've never met a woman at a bar," said divorced Mike Fox, 42, while working his biceps lifting weights at the YMCA.

Fox mostly hangs out on bike trails, although he's also made friends with several other single gym members. And they like to hit the Dunkin' Donuts on Spring Hill Drive after closing down the gym.

Some, like Terry Rockett of Hudson, who was hanging out at Capone's pool hall on County Line Road late Monday night, swear the best place to meet a "good girl" is at church.

"I don't have no clue how people meet otherwise," said Rockett, 32.

Northcliffe Baptist Church is one of many area churches with a singles' Bible study group, whose membership ebbs and flows with weddings and jobs opportunities.

Most group members are looking to meet people outside of the bar scene, said Fred Thompson. He oversees the group, which plans low-key weekend gatherings, such as watching videos at members' homes.

For the more adventurous, Hernando County does have one singles' group, Prime Time Singles. They boast a nice group who oddly prefer not to reveal their ages or last names.

They plan many activities each weekend and some weeknights, from canoe trips to ballroom dancing.

They make sure that weekends, the "loneliest hours," are completely filled. The group is open to anyone 21 to 55 years old, but their core membership tends toward the 40 to 55 age range, which they identify as a particularly tough age to be single in the county.

"The problem is I think we're too old to be with the young people and too young to be with the old people," said Linda McGrantham, who looks like she's in her late 40s.

Dozens of younger and older singles bemoaned the county's lack of support of any singles' culture.

"Everything here is for the elderly," said Deborah Hollis, Prime Time Singles president. "I don't know what it is about the golden age of 55."

Younger singles still fume about the county's fight against Planet Bubba, a famed but doomed hot spot that has gained legendary status in the Hernando bar scene.

In 2000, the county passed a noise ordinance after neighbors complained about loud dance music and unruly patrons at the nightclub. The county slapped the bar with a $500 noise fine, and the bar closed shortly thereafter.

"This county is run by retirees," said Scores patron Steve Moore, 34, who moved here from Detroit to be closer to family. "If you're young and single and you want to have fun, the county tries to stifle you."

Indeed, Hernando County needs to recognize that the number of those living single without a spouse has increased by a solid seven percent, said David Miles, the county's census guru at the Planning Department. Little planning, if any, has accounted for this group, he said.

For example, massive 2,000-plus housing developments planned for Hernando Oaks and Holland Springs are both modeled after the "village concept," which are pods of houses in cul de sacs, a bedroom/retirement community design geared toward couples.

"The county needs to think about whether or not it only wants to be a retirement community," Miles said.

But Commissioner Chris Kingsley, who himself is single, said the county can't do very much in terms of supporting social life. The county can't force businesses to cater to younger audiences. When businesses research the county's demographics, they'll find that most of the county's population is married, older and retired, he said.

"The demographics aren't changing, we're still growing older," said Kingsley, recently divorced and living in an apartment. "I agree with people, but there's just not enough single, young people for those establishing a business to know they're going to succeed."

-- Jennifer Liberto covers business and development in Hernando County. Send e-mail to liberto@sptimes.com.

-- Constance Humburg contributed to this report.

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