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Brooksville took to him, but he's leaving

Having left his stamp all over town, the city's popular redevelopment coordinator heads for grad school and a job in Indiana.

Published July 5, 2005

BROOKSVILLE - One day last week, across from the twisty, craggy courthouse oaks with all that dangling Spanish moss, Raymond Hess sat down on a bench he helped get for this very space on this very sidewalk.

"Well ...," he said.

Hess doesn't like to brag.

Around downtown, though, during the last 31/2 years, the hand-shaking, always-smiling 28-year-old has had something to do with just about every effort at revitalization: the brick sidewalks, the flowers, the old-fashioned street lights, the Saturday afternoon music series called the Band Shell Bash.

Now he's leaving his post as the city's redevelopment coordinator. He's going to start graduate school at Indiana University in the fall. His last day here is today.

"He's a heck of a person," community development director Bill Geiger said. "He really came in and did the job for us."

Hess worked with Brooksville Again, the downtown merchants association, the Hernando County Fine Arts Council, the Brooksville Mural Society, the folks who run the Hernando Heritage Museum and those working toward completing the Good Neighbor hiking and nature trail.

Some of that was part of his work, but lots of it was on his own time, too.

For a guy who's from Daytona Beach and went to college in Tallahassee, then Gainesville, then did two years in the Peace Corps in Ouangolodougou, Ivory Coast - that's Wonga-lo-doo-goo - he certainly found a home in little old Brooksville.

The stereotype, of course, has all sorts of people moving into Florida, about 1,000 people a day, according to some estimates. But few of them seem to ever quite make their spot in the state a place to call their own.

Not Hess.

Walking around downtown, he waves into windows. Passing cars do the quick hey-there honk. He can hardly go anywhere without running in to someone.

"It's possible," he said last week.

Just not probable.

At lunch at Mykonos II, he ran into Gene Kelly, an environmental lands planner for the Southwest Florida Water Management District and a member of Brooksville's Good Neighbor Trail Advisory Committee.

"I'll let you eat first," Hess said, "then I'll come over and harass you."

A couple of weeks ago, at a going-away party for Hess and his wife, Vanessa, at the new Rising Sun Cafe, people said nice things and even gave him gifts.

"It's been just great working with Raymond," Brooksville Again's Evelyn Duncan said that evening.

Hess got up and gave a speech. Two of them, actually. Or was it three?

"It was a very tough decision for us to relocate," he told everybody.

"Thank you," he said.

"Thank you all."

He blew kisses on his way out.

How did this happen?

He met Vanessa through the Peace Corps. She had worked in the northern part of the Ivory Coast - a bumpy, three-day ride away - in a small tight-knit village with no electricity, no running water and mud huts with thatched roofs. Hess, meanwhile, was stationed at City Hall in Ouangolodougou, a crossroads town.

When they finished in Africa, he and Vanessa traveled for six weeks, backpack and hostel style, in Morocco, Spain, Italy, Greece and Switzerland - then six more weeks stateside, to Boston, Niagara Falls, New Orleans, Michigan, Texas, Louisville, Ky., and Flagstaff, Ariz.

Hess started in Brooksville on Feb. 14, 2002 - Valentine's Day, which was apropos, really, considering in the beginning this was going to be only a stopoff before grad school.

That's not the way it turned out.

He pushed it off in '03.

Then again in '04.

To leave here?

"It just didn't feel right," Hess said.

"I would say in Brooksville that the sense of community is stronger than I've seen in other towns in Florida. Whenever I bring people here, friends or family, they're always kind of surprised. It doesn't seem like a Florida city: the history, the rolling hills, the brick streets, all the majestic oaks.

"It's not your pine trees and palm trees. It feels a little bit different."

Different, to Hess, in a good way.

He took to Brooksville.

And it took to him.

Through all the construction that put in those brick sidewalks, those flowers, those old-fashioned street lights - an inconvenient, often galling time - Hess was the city's liaison to the downtown business owners. And they seemed to like him even then.

"He's just a people person," Geiger said. "He came in and meshed with the people.

"And he got the job done."

The city doesn't have a replacement yet.

"I would hate to be presumptuous and say I was responsible for anything," Hess said, "because in any project there's always a team that puts it together."

Now, he has a position lined up with the city of Bloomington, Ind., so he'll be able to work his way through school. The opportunity was too good. He had to go.

"He's deserting us," Pat Jobe of the development office said jokingly last week. "What can you say?"

"It's too bad," Swiftmud's Kelly said. "We're losing a good person."

Back on the downtown bench, a Times photo shoot was over, and it had started to rain, first light - the hot, steamy, early-afternoon kind - then harder.

"I need to get a ride in one of the city vehicles back to the City Hall," Hess said.

Here, finally, was the true test.

A blue pickup came up over the crest on S Main Street.

"Rock on," Hess said.

He started to wave his hands, both of them, above his head, looking like a guy in a tie trying to hail a rush-hour cab in Manhattan.

The pickup braked, slowed, stopped and the driver smiled and yelled out the window.

"You need a ride?"

--Michael Kruse can be reached at 352 848-1434 or

[Last modified July 5, 2005, 01:33:21]

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