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Titusville: City puts hope in history

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City puts hope in history

Melbourne, Cocoa among success stories

BY BRITT KENNERLY

FLORIDA TODAY

TITUSVILLE --Mike Miller and Kim Michaud are crazy about the South Washington Avenue building where they craft sails downstairs and are creating a spacious, window-filled living space upstairs.

From a retail standpoint, Titusville's historic area is still a far cry from the success stories of Cocoa Village and historic downtown Melbourne, role models of sorts that went through their own periods of blight and flight to malls on the cities' outskirts.

But some think the downtown's stagnant image is on the verge of real transformation.

People like Miller and Michaud and the city's Community Redevelopment Agency are trying to change the face -- and in some cases, the facades -- of business and life in the 300-acre redevelopment district.

"Downtown's really the heart of the community," said Michaud, who opened M&M Sails with Miller last year and received a facade grant to help renovate the former bank/drugstore.

Nora Jean Drown, downtown coordinator for the Chamber of Commerce since earlier this year, thinks the long-overlooked area can again bustle. Her full-time position includes promoting Historic Titusville, whose members are owners of storefront and home-based businesses in the redevelopment district.

Most available space in the district is either sold, leased or being renovated and facade grants are available, she said. Recent additions include the Book Rack, which opened last week, and French cuisine from Pacscal's Downtown Bistro, which opened in March.

"We should be full by the end of the year," Drown said.

Creating excitement about three such districts was crucial to the progress of Historic Downtown Melbourne, the 18-block Olde Eau Gallie Riverfront and Babcock Street, a once-desolate area now alive with shops, restaurants and industry.

"You need these areas, due to the fact that it's sort of the core urban area, and if they fall apart, it affects the rest of the city," said Cindy Dittmer, planning and economic developer for the city of Melbourne.

Total turnaround

The southward view from State Road 520 down oak-tree-lined Brevard Avenue in

Cocoa Village doesn't hint at the history behind the shade -- like how Cocoa Village Playhouse, which stages Broadway shows, once housed a Ford dealership.

Tourists playing pool at The Dog and Bone British pub or watching a jewelry maker are a far cry from what visitors saw and heard seven or eight years ago: Drug deals. Gunshots at night. Hookers using the pay phone in front of City Hall.

Mayor Judy Parrish, a council member for eight years and mayor for the past five, said she ran for office in part to change that bleak picture.

"I lived downtown and didn't walk out of my back yard at night for 12 years," she said. "I tried to make a change rather than just move away."

Change didn't come quickly, or easily. The city came up with a downtown plan, built a riverfront park, put police officers on bicycles downtown. Redevelopment officials also instituted a facade grant, matching business owners' funds. Forty buildings have gotten facelifts through that program alone.

Over the past two years, property value in and around downtown has increased dramatically, Parrish said.

"They say to have to have a viable downtown, you have to have a municipal element, a residential area and a retail area," she said. "You can't just have shops or it becomes like Disney. Once we got people living downtown again, then it really started to take off. More nightlife, more restaurants that served residents coming home from work or coming back to downtown after work."

Laura Ortiz-Cotto liked frequenting Cocoa Village as a student at Brevard Community College and now waits on customers at Village Cappucino.

"My boyfriend's Brazilian. A lot of the international students at BCC come here to the Village because it reminds them of cities where they came from," Ortiz-Cotto said.

Realtor Margret Cornell of Rockledge, a native of Poland, takes clients to the Village for a slower pace and doses of espresso at Ossorio, a bakery on Brevard Avenue.

"It's a must-stop place. I think Cocoa Village represents the charm, the quaintness of the area," she said. "People from Europe have thanked me for helping them discover this area -- they say it's just like being at home. It definitely feels like home to me, sitting in cafes, drinking coffee and just talking."

On a recent 90-plus-degree day, Julie Fenster and Annmarie Gagne of Provincetown, Mass., strolled Brevard Avenue, agreeing there's nothing like Cocoa Village back home.

"All the shops, crafts, pubs -- there's lots to do here in a small area," Fenster said.

Time for change

On Highland Avenue in the 18-block Old Eau Gallie Riverfront area of Melbourne, shoppers can get their shoes and luggage fixed near an art store and a business teaching yoga lessons for adults and children.

At One Harbor Place, an eight-story building, more than 15,000 square feet have been leased in the past six months.

On New Haven Avenue, young and old shoppers sip drinks at umbrella-covered tables in front of eateries an earshot away from boutiques with names like Downtown Divas.

In most cases, there's a 10 percent vacancy downtown, said Rob Beckner, a Realtor and vice president of Melbourne Main Street's board of directors.

"Property values are rising. Rent values are rising," he said.

"What we've seen over the last four or five years are more retail shops selling unique gifts, something you can't go to the mall and find," planner Dittmer said.

But up until a just few years ago, it was a different story.

"In the mid-1980s, a woman was murdered leaving an office," Dittmer said. "We've constantly dealt with the homeless, with loitering and panhandling -- those things have gotten better, but they haven't gone away.

"The thing that helps is more people shopping, working, whatever -- people feel more comfortable with a lot of other people around."

Eau Gallie, the newest area of focus, hasn't changed significantly in the past decade, but has worked a lot more on crime issues more prevalent 10 to 15 years ago, she said.

Laird Gann, president of Melbourne Main Street, describes the city's last 20 years as a roller-coaster ride.

"But once the momentum gets going, if the right people are in place and the merchants all have somewhat of a common vision, and there's some support from the city or county, there's really no limit to what can happen," he said.

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Titusville was always one of my favorites. Used to go fishing over there all the time. The contrast between NASA on one side of the Banana River/Mosquito Lagoon and sleepy, southern Titusville on the other always makes me smile for some reason. I'm glad these smaller Florida towns are resurecting downtown living.

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