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Inverness builds olde downtown

Five separate projects during the next three years will forever change the face of historic downtown.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 31, 2000


INVERNESS -- One path takes you along the western shore of Big Lake Henderson, on a boardwalk dotted with benches and outlook points, through Wallace Brooks Park and around the shore of Cooter Pond.

Another path takes you from a new, two-story City Hall down Old Main Street into a district anchored by the restored 1912 courthouse-turned-museum. Old-fashioned street lamps, new trees and accent brickwork on the sidewalks enhance the historic feel along the downtown shops.

Welcome to downtown Inverness, circa 2003.

The next few years will see a flurry of construction in the downtown area, as five separate projects converge to bring polish to the city's hub. Inverness will have a restored historic courthouse, an expanded new courthouse, a string of waterfront parks, a renovated downtown and probably a new City Hall before the next presidential election or summer Olympiad rolls around.

"Over the next few years you are going to watch the city change right before your eyes," City Manager Frank DiGiovanni told the Inverness City Council during a workshop Thursday night.

The projects are a mix of city and county efforts, funded with a blend of local tax dollars and state grants.

The first of the five is almost finished: The historic courthouse will open in October after 61/2 years of restoration. The makeover cost more than $2-million and has turned the old courthouse into a museum that will house local archives, educational programs and social events.

Just north on Apopka Avenue, the new courthouse next year will get a 40,000-square-foot addition to house courtrooms, followed by renovations to the existing building. The 21-month project is expected to cost the county $8.2-million, county architect Tom Williford said.

To the east, city officials next year will develop a string of parks along part of Big Lake Henderson and around Cooter Pond. The so-called linear park will start by Short Street, run along the western waterfront of the lake and the pond, and ultimately meet the Withlacoochee State Trail at State Road 44.

The city has used $933,735 in state grants from the Florida Communities Trust to buy 6 acres along the waterfront. The grant allows communities to buy environmentally sensitive lands and preserve them as passive parks.

The city's plans call for benches and outlook points, picnic tables and grills, educational signs about wildlife, and a walkway along the water, city parks director Pati Smith said.

"I have visions of what this will be, but it all depends on how far the money goes," she said.

Three state grants totaling $225,000 from the Florida Recreation Development Assistance Program, along with $125,000 in matching funds from the city, are in next year's city budget to cover the park development costs.

Inverness officials also are negotiating on two other pieces of property: a 2-acre lot southwest of Wallace Brooks Park and a 19-acre lot that borders the northeast side of Cooter Pond, to complete the linear park vision, Smith said. The city has received $200,000 and is applying for $1-million in state grants to buy those lands.

"The objective is to make this whole area a focal point," Smith said, running her hand around a map showing Cooter Pond. "It will be one nice little package."

The most dramatic change to the landscape could be a new City Hall, a project still in the early conceptual stage.

DiGiovanni showed several designs to City Council members last week during the budget workshop. The proposed city budget for 2000-2001 includes $625,000 for City Hall renovations, the first installment on a two- or three-year plan, he said.

The most popular concept among council members was the idea of a two-story building just east of City Hall. The new building would bring council chambers and most departments under one roof, leaving the 40-year-old City Hall building to be demolished to make way for grass and trees.

DiGiovanni said the city still needs to conduct a space needs study to determine how big a new building should be. But he said the city should think big -- the new building should last the city 40 years.

Council members nodded approvingly at the plan, and asked DiGiovanni to continue developing the concept.

"For years and years, the government buildings are what has drawn people to this city," council member John Sullivan said. "I think we owe it to them to build an attractive building."

A new City Hall building likely would affect the Citrus County Chamber of Commerce, which has occupied the same tiny building on nearby city land since 1959. While the city develops its concept, the chamber will consider its own space needs and whether it needs to expand or move, executive vice president Betty Pleacher said.

The project generating the most excitement among the old town merchants, however, is the downtown renovation project set to start in May.

Using a $558,000 state Community Development Block Grant, along with $123,500 in local funds, the city will enhance the historic downtown area with old-fashioned street lamps and benches, brick-lined sidewalks, and trees surrounded by iron gratings.

The plans also include more functional additions, such as outdoor electrical outlets that could power Christmas lights, and permanent posts that could be used to anchor tents during festivals.

Signs, parking spaces and trash cans are all being looked at to see how they can be improved, said Bill Wiley, director of development services for the city.

"Basically we're just trying to give people a feeling that they're coming into something different when they come into the downtown area," he said.

New Inverness Olde Towne Association president Winston Perry said the renovations will give a distinct, historic feel to the downtown area that residents will enjoy for generations to come.

As for the temporary inconveniences that will come with the four-month construction project, Wiley said he will meet with merchants weekly during the project to address any concerns. He also said work would be done in phases so that no one area would be affected for too long.

Each of the five projects is a substantial development in its own right, Mayor Joyce Rogers said. Taken together, she said, the projects will forever change the face of downtown Inverness.

"It's going to instill even more pride in the community when they see that Inverness has not just fallen back in time, it is stepping forward with improvements with the help of a lot of grant money and a lot of coordinated efforts," Rogers said. "This is very future thinking, that we're keeping the green spaces and parks and that going-back-in-time feeling that people moved here to get."

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