By B.C. Manion
With its quaint shops, historic courthouse and collection of restaurants, it’s hard to picture the slice of Americana that is downtown Dade City as a place once characterized by vacant storefronts and buildings falling into disrepair.
But that’s precisely what the place was like in the mid-1980s before Dade City Main Street began the battle to revive the downtown.
“It was right on the verge of dying,” said Pat Weaver, who led the effort to establish Dade City Main Street. “I just couldn’t bear to see it be boarded up. … Dade City was referred to as ‘dead city.’ We decided to do something about it.”
Harsh freezes and the allure of shopping malls had a crippling effect on the district’s vitality, recalled Pete Brock, a member of Dade City Main Street’s founding board.
“Our downtown was in a state of decline,” Brock said.
That organization, which was part of the Florida Main Street Program, ceased operations on March 28. Before then, it served as a catalyst for revitalization and sponsored community events for a quarter-century.
From the very beginning, Weaver was confident the Main Street program could play a pivotal role in saving her hometown community’s downtown.
It took two years to line everything up to apply to join the state’s Main Street program, Brock said.
Gaining approval for the program required local commitment, including financial and community support. It also involved establishing a board of directors, drafting articles of incorporation and having the willingness to hire a full-time manager, Brock said.
The group also had to demonstrate community backing.
“We raised about $30,000 in six weeks,” Weaver said.
Most cities applying to the state’s Main Street program had to try more than once, Brock said. The Dade City group, however, had done its homework.
“We were accepted on the first go-round,” Brock said.
Brock thinks Dade City’s downtown was a good fit for the program.
“We were fortunate that we had a lot of historic buildings. The town has a natural beauty to it,” Brock said.
Dade City Main Street defined its mission as “a commitment to revitalize and preserve the flavor of small town life and the unique heritage of Dade City, Florida.”
The state’s Main Street program was set up as a three-year program, Brock said. It provided a $10,000 grant and technical assistance.
“They came into the community in those first three years, and they kind of evaluated where we were,” Brock said. “They trained the board. They trained the executive director. We had meetings where we did visioning. We did a lot of work to look at where we were and where we thought we needed to go.”
The board was made up of a cross-section of people to ensure it represented different points of view, Weaver said. She added that it also consisted of those who agreed to play an active role, noting there were no “in-name only” board members.
Brock characterized board members as the community’s “opinion leaders” who had the ability to make things happen.
It didn’t take long to begin having a positive impact, Brock said.
“All of a sudden, some of the merchants wanted to do something about their buildings,” Brock said.
The Gandy building was the first to complete a renovation, Weaver said.
Then Tom Smith and Kevin Roberts completed a $600,000 makeover of the Centennial Building, Brock said.
That stimulated others to get involved, and, within the first 18 months, more than $3 million had been invested in downtown construction and renovation, Brock said.
Dade City’s group worked with civic and service organizations and city and county government leaders, as well as the state’s Main Street program and experts from the University of Florida, to bring about positive change, Brock said.
The restoration of the stately courthouse, which graces the center of downtown, was a huge step in the right direction, Brock said.
“The courthouse was ugly, ugly, ugly,” Weaver said. It had additions that went all of the way out of the sidewalk, she added. “That hodgepodge of additions is gone now, and the historic structure exudes its early 1900s charm.”
The district built on its strengths, Brock said.
“We have this restaurant called Lunch on Limoges. That was really the magnet,” Brock said.
Downtown also became a draw for antiques dealers and boutiques.
The creation of the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) has also made a sizable impact, Brock said. The CRA established a mechanism for using tax proceeds to help pay for various improvements and beautification projects.
During its quarter-century tenure, Dade City Main Street initiated, played a role or was a catalyst in numerous improvements and activities, such as:
—Renovating the 1912 train depot
—Constructing downtown restrooms
—Sponsoring downtown events like the Fall Scarecrow Festival and the Country Christmas Stroll
—Promoting downtown through billboards, shopping guides, streetlight banners, commemorative postcards and bottles of private label water
—Providing grants to beautify building facades, repaint buildings and purchase decorative streetlights, benches, trash receptacles, bicycle racks and newspaper dispensers
—Improving the district’s ambiance with trees and flowering plants in planters.
Brock said the group wanted to go out on a high note when it ceased operations.
“We really do feel that most of the things that we wanted to do have been accomplished in terms of the appearance and vitality,” Brock said. “The one area that we’re a little concerned is the advocacy area. We hope somebody will pick that up.”
John Moors, executive director of the Greater Dade City Chamber of Commerce, said the group’s decision to disband came after a lengthy run.
“Everything has a life,” Moors said. “My history has been in various hotel companies and municipal governments. So, things change. The one thing that isn’t going to change is that things change. It’s not the change that happens, it’s how you adapt.”
He’s confident the downtown district will continue to thrive.
“We have a great group of merchants in Dade City,” Moors said. “They’re engaged. They’re active. They’re really committed to the betterment of our downtown, and I think it shows when you look at our downtown.”