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Brooksville Main Street program defunding decision will be reconsidered

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by KATHRYN DENTATO

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[email protected]

BROOKSVILLE, Fla.—At the July 28, 2020, Special Economic Development meeting, Brooksville City Manager Mark Kutney explained his plan for the City’s growth. Council members showed excitement and recommended further development and details.  

Council Member Betty Erhard called for a vote to defund Brooksville Main Street (BMS) in FY2021, awarding a total of $57,000 to Kutney’s plan. The 3-2 vote in favor of defunding BMS, though not an agenda item, was considered part of a budget discussion. 

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More than 30 of Brooksville’s residents and business owners responded to the City Council’s decision during the Aug. 3, 2020, City Council meeting. For over an hour, between emails and oral comments, Council heard from many citizens who believe that BMS has begun to hit its stride and is making a positive impact in the community.

The input was generally respectful but adamantly opposed to the decision to defund. BMS supported restaurants and shops when the pandemic caused a shutdown. Creativity and promotions brought traffic to downtown, engaging visitors and business owners over the past several months. Defunding BMS after its successes and shifting the money to Kutney’s unproven plan does not make sense to some.  

Others applauded the bold vote, stating money paid to BMS during a period of economic hardship and uncertainty was wasted. Businesses that utilized BMS-driven events to stay solvent “didn’t have much of a business to start with,” said one commenter. Distrust of Brooksville Vision Foundation, more than of BMS, is at the heart of the issue. 

Council members remained divided. Vice Mayor Pat Brayton appeared to reconsider his vote, suggesting that a public workshop between council members, Kutney and Brooksville Vision Foundation president Cliff Manuel would be more profitable than hearing from so many others. 

BMS’s scope is limited to the downtown area, Council Member Robert Battista said. Kutney’s plan encompasses the entire city’s economic development, which has stalled because of the monies diverted to BMS. Included in the plan is the CRA, the same area BMS covers. 

It is not a matter for public discussion, Battista said and should be handled by leadership. An executive meeting between Kutney, Manuel, and their staff would be more productive, said Battista.  The storefront space is largely used by professional service, not retail. 

Council Member Bill Kemerer agreed with Battista’s assessment that downtown Brooksville is not economically depressed. Utilizing a building’s second story as residences or retail space would fall under the CRA. Kemerer favored a meeting between the executives. The problem with executive meetings, Brayton said, is that Kutney could not make a binding decision but must defer to Council.  

Mayor Joe Bernardini said the budget discussions are tentative. The City has no solid figures as to revenue or the audit results. With two public budget hearings pending those figures, City Attorney Nancy Stuparich confirmed the possibility that BMS could still be added to the budget. 

Erhard objected. Her motion on July 28, 2020, was clear that she did not want to fund BMS, she said. Though Brayton previously supported Erhard’s July 28 motion, Brayton called for Council to reconsider. Kemerer seconded it. There was no discussion, and the motion passed 3-2, with Erhard and Battista opposed. Kemerer recommended having a separate meeting, after the general budget discussion, that would only address BMS. 

Kutney indicated his working relationship with Manuel is a good one. Manuel is aware that Kutney must seek direction from Council before making a final decision. Kutney agreed to have a meeting and prepare a presentation at the Aug. 24, 2020 budget meeting. 

Kemerer moved to place the request to reconsider BMS funding on the Council’s budget meeting agenda on Aug. 24, 2020. Brayton seconded the motion. The motion passed 3-2, with Battista and Erhard opposed. 

A meeting between Kutney and Manuel is essential, Battista said. He wants to see more than financials. Without a clear indication of “who does what and when” to separate roles within the downtown footprint, Battista said, he would not support any funding. Bernardini agreed that goals and objectives are important. 

Erhard chided Brayton for his position change on the matter. She challenged Bernardini for time BMS has taken from Kutney and City staff, as well as during Council meetings. After receiving $184,580 from the City, Erhard asked, “Why are they not self-sustaining?” 

Brooksville Main Street 3rd Quarter Report

Brooksville Main Street’s Executive Director, Natalie Kahler, presented the 3rd Quarter report to Council at the Aug. 3, 2020 meeting. Her PowerPoint presentation, covering events from April-June 2020, followed the discussion to reconsider including BMS in the FY2021 budget. 

Normal events and promotions have been reworked or are completely new, adapting to technology and the public health guidelines. Some relationships have been strengthened and new ones cultivated, Kahler said. 

April was a difficult month for businesses due to the mandated lockdown. Most retail shops were closed. Restaurants shifted from indoor seating to takeout options, offering specialized menus and curbside pickups. Gift certificates were offered as prizes for those spending at least $100 in April for The Hippity Hoppity Great Brooksville Take-Out. 

The Florida Mermaid Trail debuted in February. In April, more visitors walked the trail since it was an outdoor activity that met social distancing guidelines. A Mermaid Trail coloring contest had winners from Michigan, Virginia, and California. Online participation reached nearly 20,000 views. 

BMS offered free online marketing to help to local businesses. Going forward, BMS will promote businesses at no charge, but creating marketing tools will become part of a membership package. 

Beginning in May, businesses reopened under Phase 1. BMS promoted the re-launchings under the new guidelines, indicating where masks were to be worn, hours of operation, sanitizing procedures, etc.  

Also, in May: 

  • The BMS online presence increased. In addition to Facebook and Instagram, BMS can now be found on Pinterest, Snapchat, Twitter, and YouTube. The Employment Connections group has posts for both job seekers and employers.
  • Students, especially graduating seniors, were affected also. BMS honored graduates on social media with tributes submitted by family and friends. 
  • Picnic tables under the courthouse trees debuted. The Memorial Day weekend concerts were well-attended.  Vice Mayor Pat Brayton explained the memorial.

June’s “Believe in Brooksville” Photo Scavenger Hunt encouraged visitors to explore the city. Photo entries were free, but restaurants and shops benefited from the increased traffic. 

Kahler said BMS featured expansions, new openings or relocations via social media. The Florida Mermaid Trail continues to bring visitors, Kahler said. 

BMS also works behind the scenes on economic vitality projects such as the small business incubator. Brooksville Vision Foundation president Cliff Manuel and City Manager Mark Kutney collaborate on the safety zone. Kahler said BMS purchased PPE items from a local business, then distributed them to service and professional organizations. 

Since BMS is a non-profit organization, Kahler completed the FDEP application to designate Brooksville a Trail Town. Grant approval would gain the city free promotion and signs. Kahler said other grant applications were made, and BMS continues to make businesses aware of grants or loans as they become available.

Kahler made two economic vitality requests of the City. One was for curbside parking. Kutney agreed to reserve some curbside locations to facilitate easy pickup for restaurants without parking areas. The other was for wayfinding markers for the Florida Mermaid Trail. The new Director of Public Works, Paul Booth, is working with BMS on this. 

Three BMS design projects were discussed. Two new mini-mural sites have been selected. One mural will be historical in nature. This is at the property owner’s request, Kahler said. Still pending is the approval of the wayfinding pole banners. Kahler said the outdoor seating {picnic tables) received a great response.

Kahler announced three awards Brooksville Main Street has received in the 3rd quarter. 

  • Southeast Tourism Society listed Christmas on Main Street as a Top 20 Event for this year.
  • Entry into the National Main Street Coloring Contest based on the Mermaid Trail
  • Secretary of State Florida Main Street Award to the Lowman Family Foundation for its consistent donations to BMS

Listing the 3rd quarter income sources, Kahler acknowledged that revenue is down. It is because BMS is encouraging spending in local businesses instead of holding events. Contrary to comments from Council, Kahler said BMS is not event-driven. Other Main Street programs that rely on events are struggling, Kahler said. BMS is not. 

In the 3rd quarter, BMS received almost as much money in grant funding ($10,698) as the City Council gave ($11,250). Kahler continues to seek additional grants that BMS can apply for since the applications have generally been approved. 

Council Member Betty Erhard challenged Kahler about the need for City funds if the grant money is easy to obtain. Main Street programs must have a public (government) component in addition to partnerships with local businesses and grant monies, Kahler responded. 

This blend of public and private entities allows a Main Street program to access more funding types. But the continual controversy with Council has hampered this, according to Kahler. 

Erhard questioned the identification of volunteer hours. Volunteer hours are not captured as in-kind donations according to Quickbooks, Kahler said, but the $25/hour figure is a federal figure.   

Council Member Bill Kemerer moved to approve the invoice BMS submitted. Vice Mayor Pat Brayton seconded the motion. The motion passed with a 4-1 vote, with Erhard opposed.

 

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