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Dade City basked in light of sporting events

By CHASE SQUIRES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 31, 2001

DADE CITY -- In a year when the ups and downs of small-town life suddenly seemed dwarfed by the enormity of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Dade City and its neighbors marked time with new projects and old traditions.

While uncovering the past by digging up the asphalt blanketing historic brick streets, Dade City also looked to the future this year with the opening of a YMCA branch and renewed hopes for youth athletic programs and a skateboard park.

San Antonio and Saint Leo said goodbye to the tradition-rich San Antonio Volunteer Fire Department but approved new housing developments and felt the impact of growth as telecommunications giant Verizon went looking for a place to erect a cellular telephone tower in Saint Leo.

In Dade City, the year began on a somber note when hometown physician Dr. Donald L. McBath died Jan. 2 after a long battle with cancer. The man known as "Doctor Don" died at age 65.

Downtown Dade City Main Street also lost its executive director when Gail Hamilton resigned, then hired Ginny Solberg in March.

But the area also started the year with the first incarnation of the Tampa Bay Championship Rodeo at Lange Farm, with thousands of spectators and scores of riders and ropers.

In March, Dade City's Little Everglades Ranch was the center of attention, with the Little Everglades Steeplechase luring thousands for a day of horse racing on a new $750,000 course as competitors vied for $125,000 in prize money.

Sports continued in October with the second Dade Battle of Brilliance attracting hundreds of bicyclists.

Downtown Dade City also saw its share of construction as work got under way in spring on the $7-million restoration of the courthouse. All year, the project led to cramped conditions at the courthouse as entire sections were demolished and rebuilt, but by year's end, the completion of the first phase promised a bigger, brighter facility when the work is done in 2002.

Construction didn't slow down a parade of high-profile trials. Two men were sentenced to death -- murderers Lawrence Joey Smith, 24, and Michael Peter Fitzpatrick, 39 -- and a jury recommended death for another killer, Faunce Pearce, 39, but a judge has yet to make the final ruling.

The court system also saw labor unrest with its independent contractor court reporters, which led to a pilot program that saw the county hire the reporters as employees.

Dade City also opened its first public restrooms in March and embarked on a campaign to remove the asphalt from streets in historic districts, uncovering quaint brick roads that were covered up years ago.

Construction and growth were a big part of the news in the past year, two new restaurants -- San Ann Chef and Garden Delights -- began luring tourists up N Seventh Street, expanding a visitors district, and residents twice gave a thumbs-down to Department of Transportation plans to four-lane the U.S. 98 bypass.

Questions cropped up over the summer about whether Dade City should have to pay for part of a Pasco County proposal to pave roads and improve infrastructure in the Tommytown neighborhood, with the county's project covered by $8-million in federal grants.

Tropical Storm Gabrielle highlighted some serious needs at City Hall, with rains exposing leaky windows and molding carpets.

The area also saw visits from politicians, even during a nonelection year, from one-time gubernatorial hopeful Pete Peterson speaking at Lake Jovita Country Club to Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson choosing Dade City for his first-ever town meeting as a senator.

Dade City had its own homegrown political star, too, when Mayor Scott Black was elevated to president of the Florida League of Cities.

In Saint Leo and San Antonio, the census was big news. The federal government declared the small communities actually lost residents during a decade of heavy growth in the rest of the area. Leaders from both communities are seeking recounts.

The communities also went their separate ways on fire protection, after the volunteer department dissolved amid leadership woes. Volunteers now serve as an auxiliary to the Pasco County department that serves San Antonio. Dade City's fire department serves Saint Leo.

For all that went on, ups and downs, the region apparently is a great place to live.

A national magazine in November ranked Dade City among the country's best retirement spots, listing the city alongside Tucson, Ariz., and Hilton Head, S.C., and the ritzy Florida communities of Sanibel Island and Boca Raton.

The magazine Where to Retire lists Dade City in a special issue that compiled a decade of reviews.

The magazine raved, "This five-star small town evokes memories of a slower-paced, quieter, friendlier America of a half century ago. ... The cool shade of moss-hung oaks and brick-paved streets draw strollers young and old, while casual shoppers browse through antique shops."

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