by Natalie Kahler, Brooksville Main Street Executive Director
At the end of Monday night's Council meeting, Mr. Battista shared his thoughts on the Main Street District and program. He invited us to either attend a meeting to address his ideas or do it another way. I certainly hope to be able to address Council in person and would love to be put on the agenda in July or August, but didn't want to leave that big of a gap in time before answering him so decided to write this response.
This will read more personal than theoretical because my relationship with Butch is personal. We both ran for City Council and took office in 2014 and weathered many difficult decisions together. We voted the same way more often than not, and had similar goals for the city we wanted to see achieved in our term. I considered him a mentor in that role because of his legal background in government and carefully watched how he did our job. I participated with his wife for many years in a Bible study when our now adult kids were babies and our kids played HYL soccer together. Our personalities meant I was often taking the lead in controversial decisions, but I think Butch was happy for me to take the heat and I didn't mind as long as the right stuff happened in the end.
We both voted to bring the Main Street program to Brooksville and to contributing funding for its kickoff. So when I transitioned to ED of the program and he began talking about the district not being viable as a retail/restaurant corridor, I was surprised. Two years later and I still get surprised when he speaks that way so I'm grateful for the chance to address his perceptions with my own. These quotes in bold are summaries of his issues; you can see his entire speech here or watch this part where he specifically discusses Main Street:
- "There are no for sale or for rent signs in the Main Street district" There may not be signs, but there are vacancies and I refer people weekly to those building owners. Most of our property owners choose to get renters in other ways than "for rent" signs. Part of my job is to track those vacancies and report them to the State quarterly. Most of the current available spaces are larger ones that are not appealing to retail, but we do have several. We also have a vacant professional office currently being considered for a restaurant. We also have loads of second floor vacancies that I have been sending interested parties to view. And we have some really smart entrepreneurs who are figuring out how to use those spaces and owners willing to invest in the plan. In the future I believe those will be places our professional services will be most interested in occupying.
- "Brooksville Main Street doesn't want professional businesses in their commercial node...They want a different downtown than exists." We LOVE our lawyers, accountants, hair dressers and spa owners. A loss of our spa or yoga studio would be terrible. Professional service businesses greatly contribute to the viability of the restaurants and retail. They contribute financially to our events as sponsors in ways most other businesses aren't able. They provide stability to our property owners and thus incentivize them to renovate buildings. When the last consultants came in 2018 and people complained about the number of attorneys, the consultants disagreed and said they'd be key in our success. I wasn't sure I agreed at the time, but can say with certainty now that they were right.
- "The Main Street area is already a viable node" I agree with this. The downtown has become way more utilized in the last ten years and that is exciting. We don't want anyone who is here to leave. We want to expand what is here while making the most of some of our underutilized spaces. There are several ways we are working on this - one is that we are working with several property owners on the possibility of creating micro-retail business spaces that will create a bridge between being a vendor and having a large storefront. There are also empty lots that we are working on with developers to create more retail/restaurant spaces. And as all those spots fill, property owners will have reasons to make their second floors usable space. Yes, I keep mentioning the second floors. They are important. Take a trip to Ocala and see how vibrant their downtown is after they repurposed their previously empty upper floors. Those residential spots are the hottest ticket in town, renting per square foot for as much as our Southern Hills homes. In short, we have creative people with creative ideas that are working on ways to accommodate all the new businesses (and there are many) that are interested in planting roots in Brooksville as a result of being shown just how viable it is.
- "Main Street is a merchant's association" Merchants want to be downtown, especially along the Florida Mermaid Trail. That's usually the first thing they request when asking me what spaces are available. And yes, we do events to help generate traffic for them. But we aren't merchants and we aren't the boss of them. Some of them serve on our committees thankfully and we love their wisdom. But we are an economic development, beautification, and marketing nonprofit that focuses on placemaking. We develop a sense of home that makes people want to come and stay and play. We are glad to collaborate with the Chamber, but we are not just a duplication of them. We each serve our purpose and do it better when we both exist.
- "Artist renderings are beyond reality" I agree with Butch. I'm not a fan of artist renderings being done for people who don't own the buildings. One of the renderings put a beautiful fountain in the street in front of the Courthouse and it only makes me sad every time I think of it and the unlikelihood of getting it anytime soon. I have never brought a single random rendering to Council. Under my tenure, we have presented renderings to building owners for their own buildings. Several of them have implemented those changes. If you go throughout the district, you will find at least a dozen buildings who we have helped with design advice at their request. I'm a practical person who wants practical results and this has been our strategy.
- "The forty people they have on all these committees, I think they're going nowhere." This is a disturbing statement that I find needs immediate correction. Our committee members have provided free professional (architectural, legal, engineering, contracting, designing) advice to district businesses, organized the mobile mural projects, planned and hosted hundreds of free events, expanded our historical research, created popular (walking) tours to honor amazing citizens whose accomplishments had been previously overlooked, and will soon facilitate our first historic renovation. They have NOT wasted their time. They have greatly contributed to making Brooksville a better version of itself and I am immensely grateful for their trust in us and their advocacy for us. They may not be going where Butch wants them to, but I fully reject that there is not value in their contributions. The efforts of Main Street volunteers can be seen in realtors bragging about Brooksville being a Main Street community in their listings, the number of people that suggest that residents follow the Brooksville Main Street page to know what fun things are going on in social media, and the numerous businesses that contact the Main Street office wanting to know where they can find space to open, relocate, or expand their businesses in downtown Brooksville.
I think those are all the issues Butch wanted addressed. Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org if I forgot anything and I'll happily add it.
I do want to address two items from a prior meeting that were discussed again by Councilman David Bailey and the Vice-Mayor Monday night. David asked Butch if it was true that Butch said the downtown was dead and no one wanted to walk it. Butch said that wasn't true and is reflective of the lies of social media (a reference to an old Voice blog). While Butch may not have used the exact verbiage "the city is dead" he did say at the City Council meeting on May 18, 2020:
- “not enough inventory [buildings] to make this thing kick off and stay going under its own steam” (starts at 2:01:20)
- “people see the town but I don’t think they come back” (starts at 2:02:30)
- “there is no draw here” (2:02:57)
- "we advertise more than we deliver...we're selling a product we don't really have in many cases"(2:03:12)
- "I don't see the draw to bring people" (2:04:51)
- "too many hills,” (2:04:58)
- “too dispersed, (2:05:01)
- ”an awful lot of residences intermixed,” (2:05:02)
So he didn't use the word "dead" but you can see how people made that the logical conclusion of his words. I'd just like to address two of those in particular:
"People come for these events but they don't come back" Talk to our businesses and you won't say that anymore. BMS events help get people in the door the first time, then the merchant's products create return customers. John at Country Depot and Bob at Easy Street Home Decor are masters at this data because they ask everyone who comes through their door where they came from and why. Go visit these men in their store and you'll get all the convincing you need. Visitors LOVE coming back.
"People don't want to walk the hills" The over 10,000 people that walked the Florida Mermaid Trail in 2020 would disagree with Butch. I've walked that route more times than I can count and it's always a challenge for this 49 year old body. But it is part of our charm. No one expects to come to Florida and hike up and down hills multiple times in a 2.2 mile route. Yet here we are! Now I will agree that it is challenging for those with disabilities. When I broke my hip last year and had to use a wheelchair and then a scooter, I admit I hit some stuff while gunning my scooter to get over a steep ledge. Addressing ADA walkability is still in the city's future. But the pandemic has accelerated people's yearning for outdoor activity and our arduous terrain is a perfect fit for those seekers. And it's a GREAT way to wear out your kids, something I was always searching out when my four were littles!
I am grateful for the good things Butch has done to help our city and am hopeful these answers will help him believe a little more in what we are accomplishing. Step by step. Day by day. Economic Development is a long term process and I look forward to being part of it for a long time to come. Hopefully with Butch as a partner.
Monday night's (June 21, 2021) entire meeting can be seen here