Will anyone notice? Hernando County’s I-75 visitors center to close

County tourism bureau moves into downtown Brooksville, saving thousands of dollars annually, the tourism director said.
Hernando tourism director Tammy Heon places a sign in the new information center Monday.
Hernando tourism director Tammy Heon places a sign in the new information center Monday.
Published September 18

BROOKSVILLE — There are days at the little storefront visitors’ center off Interstate 75, that it’s just Kim, Shannon and the taxidermied coyotes.

Kim Poppke handles marketing for Hernando County’s tourism bureau, and Shannon Werner posts on the bureau’s social media pages. They work out of an office crammed next to a Subway restaurant in an admittedly hard-to-find strip mall off exit 301.

Sometimes they break from their usual duties to serve the storefront’s nominal purpose: Convincing travelers that hanging out in Hernando County is worth their time and money.

Before they see anything else, those who come in the door see what county tourism development manager Tammy Heon calls a “nature preserve.” The assemblage of stuffed critters is set against a backdrop representing Hernando’s woods and wetlands. Heon, who has a theater degree, built it herself.

The current tourism building exhibits showcasing white-tailed deer fawns, bobcats and other wildlife seen around Hernando County. The display will be a primary focus point within the new building in downtown Brooksville.    ALICE HERDEN | Special to the Times ALICE HERDEN  |  422136
The current tourism building exhibits showcasing white-tailed deer fawns, bobcats and other wildlife seen around Hernando County. The display will be a primary focus point within the new building in downtown Brooksville. ALICE HERDEN | Special to the Times ALICE HERDEN | 422136

But these days, not many people come in. The center’s annual traffic peaked at nearly 5,900 people in 2015, according to tourism records. Last year, just 2,222 tourists stopped by, a tenth of what the office at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park draws.

On a recent “busy day,” Werner said, 13 people came through the door.

The office soon will be gone. The tourism bureau, along with Brooksville’s Main Street organization, are moving into a county-owned building next to Hernando Park in downtown Brooksville. Heon said the move will save $92,000 a year spent on the space that draws little traffic.

“For $42 a person,” Heon said, referring to the amount per visitor it cost to keep the center open last year, “I can let someone use my bathroom and give them a Visit Florida map.”

The savings could cover a six-month digital marketing campaign, Heon said, or a year’s worth of advertising in two AAA Traveler Magazines.

Renovations will begin soon at the new office on Fort Dade Avenue, Heon said, and she hopes for the move to take place in early December. The two-story building’s upper floor will have offices for Heon, the other tourism employees and Main Street director Natalie Kahler. It also will include space for Hernando County Chamber of Commerce officials to work and have meetings, though they won’t be based in that office.

Hernando County Tourism will be moving into this art-deco style building in Brooksville. It will be shared with Brooksville Main Street and the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce. This building formerly was the Hernando County Recreation office.  ALICE HERDEN | Special to the Times ALICE HERDEN  |  422136
Hernando County Tourism will be moving into this art-deco style building in Brooksville. It will be shared with Brooksville Main Street and the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce. This building formerly was the Hernando County Recreation office. ALICE HERDEN | Special to the Times ALICE HERDEN | 422136

Heon, who will move from her office at Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport, said it will be the first time in years that so many tourism employees will work in the same office, as the I-75 storefront is too small to hold everyone.

Downstairs in the new office, faux-wood-paneled walls will be ripped out, and offices around a cramped hallway opened up to form the new visitors’ center. A community hall in the rear of the building will be kept mostly as-is, and its white-and-teal color scheme will inform the rest of the space.

The downtown location offers what the I-75 office doesn’t. Visitors who wander in can be directed to restaurants a couple of blocks away, rather than a 15-minute drive across the county. And Heon said she’s excited about offerings downtown by Main Street, the Brooksville Farmers Market and others, along with the city’s potential as a cycling hub.

“It’s not just the geographic center, but it’s essentially the only city, and the main city, in the county,” said Kahler, the Main Street director. “It really makes sense for us to be all together.”

Kahler has worked extensively with tourism, both in her former role as director of Chinsegut Hill Retreat and more recently with Main Street. She said she hopes the move makes collaboration even smoother.

Heon had planned for the building to be ready by October, she said. But she decided to renovate the visitors area all at once, rather than in pieces.

“Let’s do it right,” Heon said. “Let’s make it a showpiece. We’re selling the whole county here.”

There’s a note of melancholy to the move, she said.

Setting up the I-75 office was one of her earliest tasks when she took the job seven years ago. She hopes to regain a physical presence on the east side of the county eventually, after the long-in-progress road work nearby is done.

And she won’t have to leave her favorite part of the visitors center behind. The taxidermied animals will come, too.

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