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Business Outlook 2006

The million-dollar question: Where's Starbucks?

The coffee shop surely legitimizes a place, but other chains are proving that the county is worthy.

Published February 19, 2006

When are we going to get a Starbucks here?

That's the big question in Hernando County.

And not just the kiosk kind inside the Target on U.S. 19. A real bona fide honest-to-goodness Starbucks.

Because along with pricey coffee, hoity-toity sticky buns and the chance to sit snug and smug in a comfy couch in the corner, the Seattle java giant clearly gives a place a sense of legitimacy.

Land O'Lakes has a Starbucks.

New Port Richey has two.

So . . .

Two of Hernando's biggest real estate developers say the local answer is soon.

"Right around the corner," Tommie Dawson Realty broker Buddy Selph said recently in his office in Brooksville.

Coldwell Banker broker Gary Schraut, meanwhile, said he was out not too long ago with a "site acquisition guy" who looked at land on State Road 50 and announced it "sure looks like a free-standing Starbucks to me."

Marshall Morris, Starbucks district manager for the North Tampa region, doesn't usually give specifics on deals before they're done, but he said last summer that a free-standing Starbucks - with a drive-through, no less - was on its way to the county.

"It's pretty firm," Morris said.

This isn't only about Starbucks, though. The pending arrival of the coffee chain reaffirms what's been clear for quite some time: Hernando is hot.

Lots of stats can be thrown around as proof. Unemployment is down, the population is up, the number of housing permits is way up, and the membership in the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce is higher than it's ever been. But the equation for major national retailers is simple.

"More people draw more commercial," Brooksville community development director Bill Geiger said.

Mike McHugh, director of Hernando's Office of Business Development, called them "heads in beds."

The more of those there are, the more Wal-Marts there are, the more Dunkin' Donuts, the more Home Depots - the more everything.

And the slight slowdown in the regional real estate market in the last quarter of 2005 shouldn't affect what's potentially and even likely on the way. That's true from the usual hustle-bustle of U.S. 19 to the SR 50 strip between Weeki Wachee and the Suncoast Parkway and on over to the newer hot spot of the U.S. 41 corridor in Brooksville.

Olive Garden, anybody?

Pier 1?

Panera Bread?

"If the population is big enough, you're going to have these folks present," said Jim Kimbrough, chairman and chief executive officer of SunTrust Bank/Nature Coast. "That's what's going to happen and should happen and needs to happen."

Why do major chains move in where they do?

"There isn't a specific formula necessarily for these things," Borders spokeswoman Holley Stein said in December from the bookseller's Ann Arbor, Mich., headquarters.

Is 100,000 the magic number in population? (Hernando was there in time for the 1990 census.)

Maybe 150,000? (It was slightly less than 158,000 at the end of 2005.)

Or 175,000? (The county planning department said that could come before 2010.)

Beyond specific numbers crunching, though, this much is for sure: Retail's big boys don't throw darts blind when they make their decisions.

"Those folks don't make those kinds of investments unless their forecasts are for continued growth," Kimbrough said.

This is what some of that continued growth looked like during the last year:

SunTrust's 10th Hernando branch opened near the Publix at Barclay Avenue and Spring Hill Drive.

On the opposite corner is the new Spring Hill Retail Center, which has a 23,000-square-foot strip center, a 7,500-square-foot BP gas station and a 7,000-square-foot carwash and oil change station.

All of which is across the way from a shiny Advance Auto Parts.

There seems to be new Quiznos Sub shops all over the county.

"We're growing a lot in a lot of places," spokesman David Pendery said of the country's fastest-growing sub shop chain.

But the biggest development within all of the development of 2005 might have been the boom in and around Brooksville. The county seat had little growth for most of the 1980s and 1990s. Spring Hill was the center of most of the local expansion.

That's changing.

Little Havana Cuban Cuisine opened on U.S. 41 in July.

Lowe's opened in December. The home improvement superstore is right behind the new Brooksville Court strip center.

In the quaint, downtown business district, which up until recently was relatively stagnant, the Rising Sun Cafe coffee shop opened in 2005, as did the beach-themed boutique Home at Sea and Creative Porch and Garden.

"The development here went up to State Road 50," store manager Jack Kirkman said, "and then took a hard right."

On tap for 2006 on SR 50: an R.J. Gator's and a Capital City Bank across from the new 60-room Holiday Inn Express. The hotel is scheduled to open within the next few months, spokeswoman Monica Smith said.

A 73-room Holiday Inn Express is supposed to open on U.S. 19 in the fall.

Pasco County developer Warren Dunphy is set to put in the R.J. Gator's along with an additional 65,000 square feet of retail space.

"I know what's going on up there," Dunphy said of his interest in Hernando. "It's the rooftops."

The intriguing list of maybes - local land developers would say only-a-matter-of-times - include PetSmart, Sports Authority, Old Navy, Pier 1 Imports, Michaels arts and crafts, Linens 'n Things and Panera Bread.

Panera, Selph said, is coming "quicker than you think."

Places to eat are always a topic of talk.

There's a nightly wait at Johnny Carino's.

The Spring Hill Ruby Tuesday is one of the top 20 performing Ruby Tuesdays in the country.

Schraut ate at the Outback Steakhouse on U.S. 19 one recent Tuesday.

"And I had to park on the grass," he said. "It's good. It's very good. But parking on the grass on a Tuesday at 6:30?"

And that Olive Garden?

Its Web site had Spring Hill listed as "Coming Soon" in late November - until a reporter called and asked for a more specific timetable. Then it came down.

Spokeswoman Mara Frazier: "Currently we don't have plans for an Olive Garden there."

A Carrabba's?

Spokeswoman Stephanie Amberg: "We have real estate people always looking at sites."

A second Chick-fil-A?

Spokesman Jerry Johnston: "There's no update at this point."

And about Wal-Mart . . .

Hernando has three supercenters. Could there be a fourth?

"We're always looking," spokesman Eric Brewer said from Gainesville.

The Target opened in July. It was a huge hit and still is.

A free-standing Starbucks probably would be on SR 50.

"I know people who are talking to Starbucks," Selph said. "They're not thinking '07 or '08. I think Starbucks is thinking '06. They'll be here."

Mum is the word for Morris.

"But I think Starbucks is going to work anywhere now," the district manager said last summer.

[Last modified February 19, 2006, 01:08:19]

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