by Natalie Kahler, Brooksville Main Street Executive Director
Brooksville has a history of being first. First in Florida to have females as Mayor, Elections Supervisor & County Attorney in 1928, first in US Tangerine production for decades, first to coin the term mobile mural and rotate public art throughout downtown, first to hit 90% participation in Chamber of Commerce membership. Of course we were also the first city to make international news by accidentally selling its water tower, but I’d prefer to tout that we have the first resident to give a water tower back to his city at no charge and with no stipulations (#TeamBobby).
As of this week, I believe we can add a new first. I’m pretty sure Brooksville is the first US city to be governed by millennials. When they take office next month, the five City Council members will swear in at the following ages: 27, 30, 31, 39, and 47. To put it in perspective, the majority of these councilmen were not alive when the Berlin Wall came down. They got their first chance to vote in the 2008 Obama vs. McCain race. The Twin Towers were hit while they sat in a school classroom. They’ve always had internet and reality tv.
For awhile it was typical for millennials to leave Brooksville after high school and not come back. Larger cities had the jobs and lifestyle they wanted. But we’ve been watching that change over the years; sped along by the pandemic trends of working from home and working for yourself. With Brooksville’s less expensive housing market, active arts community, growing amenities, and places where you can still see trees and wildlife, it intentionally transitioned to and has become an attractive option for our younger generations.
But our millennials didn’t just want to live here, they wanted to be involved. Many of our Main Street volunteers fit into this category, and while it is more challenging working around their schedules than their retired counterparts, the energy and ideas they bring to the table have been invaluable. Brooksville Main Street won two 2022 awards from the Florida Secretary of State for innovative community programming, and both came from the mind of millennials. Commitments to diversity, respectfulness, inclusion and creative problem-solving seem to be common threads among our millennial volunteers and they have positively impacted the group dynamic and programming.
So when they saw our city government who was often obstructive, stuck in their ways, and disrespectful of one another and the public, they got involved. Some joined city advisory boards, some started coming to Council meetings or live-streaming them at home. And some ran for City Council. Vice-Mayor Blake Bell was first, successfully running in 2020. An attorney and descendent of a Brooksville founding family, Bell came into office with Gen Xer David Bailey who unseated the longest serving councilman in City history. The public was sending Council a message that they wanted things to change. But the other council members and the city manager didn’t seem to get the message and continued to fight against the community and Main Street on just about every initiative. Bell & Bailey found themselves on the losing end of many many votes. Bailey, who works in the roofing industry, brought a practical perspective on how city permitting policies effect a business’s ability to succeed in Brooksville. But the manager and other council members often didn’t seem interested in hearing what Bailey or Bell had to contribute. Their responses to Bailey/Bell often came across as condescending pats on the head.
The accidental sale of the water tower was a watershed moment. Someone had to be held accountable and the city manager was fired. His replacement didn’t want to be at war with the public all the time and took steps to change the culture. One of the council members who had previously resisted change began to vote periodically with Bell and Bailey and became less aggressive with the public.
Then three millennials decided to run for council in 2022.
They were undoubtedly qualified. Christa Tanner works for our congressman and has deep understanding and experience in navigating government. She has ideas for what to do and actually knows how to get them done. Casey Thieryung owns a restaurant and will become the first small business owner to sit on Brooksville City Council in at least a decade, probably longer. Business owners, who pay the bulk of city taxes, have been unrepresented and their opinions have often been dismissed. Now they have a seat at the table. And Thomas Bronson, also a descendent of a Brooksville founding family, is a supervisor in a large local company. When I served on Council, I was the only member with experience managing staff. It’s an important perspective in policy-making. Now Bailey, Bronson and Thieryung will all be there with managerial experience and I guarantee it will change the climate for the good.
Here’s something I’m super excited about in our current political climate. All five council members share variants of the same temperament. They’re pretty chill. All five listen respectfully to the person standing in front of them. All five like hearing ideas. All five like throwing out ideas. None of them will be bullying or shaming one another or the public. They will make the council chambers a safe space for staff and the public. How do I know that when they haven’t taken office yet? Because I know each of them personally and I’ve observed how they behave corporately.
Do they have a lot to learn? Of course. No matter how old you are you have a lot to learn when you start a new job. The learning curve for local elected officials is massive: water, sewer, garbage, parks, emergency management, first responders, tax collection, permitting, planning and zoning, parks and placemaking, Sunshine and Ethics Laws, records retention…it’s a lot. But Brooksville has great staff and wise community leaders to help them along their way. But my biggest hope for us is that we let them do their thing. I hope our next four years is full of “we’ve never done it that way before, but lets give it a try!” It is not our job to try to smash them into our mold. We elected them to do this job; let’s get behind their leadership and help implement their vision. If we do, I truly believe we will look back at December 2022 as the beginning of Brooksville’s golden age.