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Renovated downtown looking for shoppers

Brooksville: Now that the city's aesthetics have improved, officials wonder what it will take to attract patrons and draw new businesses.

Published February 15, 2004

BROOKSVILLE - The city of Brooksville has not seen much of a downtown commercial boom since the mid 1990s, when more than a half-dozen gift and antique shops, two bed and breakfast establishments and two restaurants opened.

To capitalize on previous momentum, Brooksville began revitalizing its downtown in 2003, burying unsightly power lines, installing vintage light fixtures and dressing each intersection with brick and flowers.

Now that work crews and their backhoes are gone, city officials are left with a downtown shopping area far more appealing than years past. The question now: How to attract shoppers?

"The project was intended to be an additional draw for businesses," said Bill Geiger, the city's development director. "We hoped that it would spur private investment in downtown buildings to draw new businesses and retain old businesses."

Marketing the downtown area, which has a preponderance of professional services offices, will be a top priority during 2004.

To city officials, the strategy to entice people downtown is based primarily on aesthetics. If downtown Brooksville is appealing to the eye, people will come.

City officials are looking into ways to provide low-interest loans to business owners to spruce up their store and office fronts. There are also plans to continue aesthetic improvements downtown.

For merchants, some of whom belong to Brooksville Again, a consortium of business owners for whom a steady flow of pedestrian traffic means their livelihood, the answer is getting the word out to the public that there is a reason to come downtown.

"If we don't have shoppers, then our businesses won't flourish," said Virginia Jackson, president of Hernando Historical Museum Association, who is a liaison between the two groups. "If we don't bring people into the city, then we will go back to a ghost town. We don't want to."

On the third Saturday of each month, Brooksville Again sponsors "Market on Main Street." The market, which began in June and includes a variety of merchandise, has brought more people downtown, including some who do not live in Hernando County, said Evelyn Duncan, president of Brooksville Again.

Duncan is optimistic that the market and several other events the group has planned for this year will jump-start commerce downtown.

"Let's hope so," she said. "That is our vision."

Geiger described the future of downtown Brooksville as "very bright."

"We are starting to see some positive economic growth in and around the city," he said. "Our goal all along was to preserve the historic nature of downtown. What will help that economic growth is development on the fringe areas."

Currently, the city is in the middle of what officials call a "growth and expansion mode," during which people will see a substantial increase in development and the infrastructure to support it around the intersection of U.S. 41 and the State Road 50 truck bypass on the south side of town.

With the widening of the two highways now complete, the U.S. 41 corridor, as officials refer to it, will continue to draw new businesses and commerce during 2004, Geiger predicted.

"U.S. 41 and State Road 50 is a hot corridor," he said. "We are looking at that as the area which has the potential for the faster growth."

Among the projects at or near the intersection this year, a new Walgreens drugstore will be built on the site that has been a Country Kitchen restaurant for many years, and Country Kitchen will move across the street into a vacant restaurant building.

In addition, Geiger said, the city has received inquiries from several developers who are interested in commercial or residential development along the truck bypass, east of Barnett Road.

"From (the city's) standpoint, we need to make sure that infrastructure is available to support the development," said Geiger, explaining that the city is planning to extend utility service into those areas. "It is an investment for the city."

During 2004, plans will also move forward to build a road north of the intersection of SR 50 and Jefferson Street on the western side of the city.

The road will run parallel to SR 50 and is designed to entice light-industrial businesses and commercial retailers to an area that historically has had a small retail base.

The project will be paid for with a state Department of Transportation grant.

"From a timing perspective, we hope to have the road built in one year," Geiger said.

[Last modified February 15, 2004, 01:15:45]

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