Group, city look to make it Booksville
By MICHAEL KRUSE
Published February 6, 2007
BROOKSVILLE - Books, bookstores, book-themed coffee shops, bed and breakfasts and other businesses, poetry readings, film and literary festivals and a writer or writers in residence.
Could be Brooksville.
The folks who run the nonprofit Jack Kerouac Project of Orlando are looking for the first in a series of so-called "booktowns" they hope to establish in Florida and ultimately throughout the country. They are supposed to visit soon with city officials and downtown merchants and property owners. The potential move here, say those on both sides of the conversation, could turn this small city in Hernando County into a cultural draw for people in the state and the Southeast and even beyond.
"The idea is to use the universal appeal of books to create a cultural tourism destination," said Marty Cummins, president of the Kerouac Project, "and Brooksville looks like a very intriguing possibility."
"I think everyone's goal is to have a vibrant downtown," city redevelopment coordinator Brian Brijbag said last week, "and I think this would lead to that."
"It would bring new life to the city and put us on the map," county tourism director Sue Rupe said.
"They want to bring culture to Brooksville," said Sally Petrie, president of the Brooksville Business Alliance. "Who could be against that?"
Brooksville once was known as the home of the tangerine.
Local historian Bob Martinez says the 150-year-old county seat now is where the Old South meets New Florida.
The May-Stringer Hernando Heritage Museum has a glossy brochure that talks about "golden sunsets" and "sociable barbecue picnics" and relaxation on verandas set to "the beat of a mockingbird's song."
An advertising class at the University of South Florida in 2005 did a class project trying to come up with a catch-all slogan for Brooksville. The students came up with this: "Experience a Piece of Florida's History." All the talk the project spawned never led to much more than that.
Enter the booktown possibility.
"This could give us an identity," Brijbag said.
This is Brijbag's first full year as the redevelopment coordinator. He helped the Hernando County Fine Arts Council start the once-a-month downtown concert series called the Bandshell Bash. Now he looks around Brooksville and he sees artists' co-ops, and galleries, and second-story lofts, and a film festival at Hernando High School.
He's trying to use his position as a platform to change the perception of the town.
"I don't think every cultural event in Brooksville has to be a rodeo," Brijbag said.
Also, he says, it's not that far from Tampa and St. Petersburg. A drive to South Tampa from Tarpon Springs takes longer than from Brooksville what with the traffic on U.S. 19 and the Courtney Campbell Causeway and Interstate 275.
And it's not just cows and pickup trucks anymore.
Brooksville last year won the statewide cultural enhancement award from the Florida Redevelopment Association and was a finalist for the Florida League of Cities' award for "city spirit."
This city, Brijbag believes, could be a regional destination - as long as there's something here that's a real draw.
So. The Kerouac Project. It started in 1997 and is based in Orlando's College Park neighborhood in a tin-roof bungalow where Kerouac lived from July 1957 to April 1958. On The Road was published in the fall of '57 and made Kerouac famous after reviews called him the voice of the Beat Generation. The house in Orlando is also where he wrote The Dharma Bums in a frantic 11 days and nights before he ultimately moved to St. Petersburg and died there as a drunk in 1969.
The Kerouac Project is debt-free now, Cummins said, and wants to create these "booktowns," like Archer City, Texas, or Wigtown, Scotland.
Late last year Cummins started by sending an e-mail to community redevelopment directors through the Florida Redevelopment Association.
"May I suggest the City of Brooksville for your consideration?" he wrote in a letter dated Dec. 18.
That led to e-mail back-and-forth.
From Cummins: "We would be happy to meet with you about Brooksville becoming a booktown."
From Brijbag: "I think you will find Brooksville ripe for your project."
From Cummins: "Let me know when you are ready to meet."
"The more I hear from you and discuss it with my Board members," Cummins wrote in an e-mail Jan. 24, "the more convinced I am that Brooksville is the place."
Cummins likes Brooksville, he said last week on the phone, because it's close to Tampa, St. Petersburg and Orlando, and it has a walkable downtown with authentic, historic buildings and homes. He likes that Brijbag is "energetic" and "forward-thinking." And he likes that Hernando County has no chain bookstores.
The key, he said, is having business or property owners downtown who want to be a part of the project or sell to investors. The Kerouac Project would help with financial backing.
"The next step is we sit down and see if the city fathers and the powers that be are really behind this," Cummins said. "We're anxious to see if Brooksville works out.
"If it's done right," he added, "it could draw people from all over the world, and that's not an exaggeration."
"You create a destination," Brijbag said, "and people will come."
"I'm really excited about it," Easy Street Home Decor owner Pierre Desjardins said. "I can't see how it could hurt."
"I want it here," said Petrie, the president of the business alliance. "I think it would be lovely.
"I can see it in my mind already," she said.
Information from the Orlando Sentinel and the New York Times was used in this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 352 848-1434.