DADE CITY — Billy Brown has spent more than half a century keeping the lights on for the North Suncoast. He could have retired years ago and no one would have said a cross word. Instead, he directed his company to help revitalize Pasco's most impoverished community.
In 2007, the Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative began serving Lacoochee after it swapped some service territory with Progress Energy. The swap made good geographic sense because the co-op already served all of the area around Lacoochee.
It came into an area with crumbling infrastructure and crushing poverty.
"Many of those people basically don't have anything up there," said Brown, who celebrated 55 years at Withlacoochee earlier this month. "You've got 400 to 500 schoolkids with a future that doesn't look too bright."
Withlacoochee linemen began making $2 million in upgrades: new poles, new lines, new transformers. They sent back pictures of the area and Brown visited shortly after the co-op took over.
As community activist Karen Marler tells it, "That's when the true need became highly evident to all of them."
The utility shifted its mission from just providing reliable electricity to actively improving the living conditions in the area. According to member relations manager David Lambert, Brown came back from his trip and said, "We need to give those people a fighting chance."
Lacoochee has heard big promises before. The thriving company town never really recovered when the Cummer Cypress Co. sawmill closed in 1959. Many civic leaders began paying more attention to the area in 2003, after sheriff's Lt. Charles "Bo" Harrison was shot to death while on patrol near a nightclub.
Brown promised this redevelopment project won't fizzle out.
"We don't start things that we don't intend to finish," Brown said. "We're going to get that job done up there."
Marler, the former principal of Lacoochee Elementary, leads a citizens group for the Lacoochee-Trilby area. A representative from the co-op attends the group's monthly meetings.
Marler said Withlacoochee has the "economic and political prowess" to give the effort much-needed heft. Otherwise, she said, "the needs may have fallen on deaf ears."
Brown, who turns 78 next month, has been general manager at Withlacoochee for 38 years.
The Pasco High grad worked at the Cummer sawmill before starting as a Withlacoochee lineman in 1956. He has held nearly every job at the company, including stints as warehouse manager, billing supervisor and district manager in two offices.
He took over as general manager in 1973, after the utility's first leader was forced out after taking kickbacks when the co-op bought new vehicles. At the time, the Pasco Times praised the selection of a "low-profile hometown boy." These days, Withlacoochee is the third biggest electric cooperative in the country. A national trade group honored the utility this year for its work in Lacoochee.
Brown's connections are his biggest asset in the effort. In August, he attended a White House rural economic summit in Iowa. When he got face time with President Barack Obama and members of the Cabinet, he pressed the need for development in Lacoochee.
"I got some assurances from them that they were moving in that direction," he said.
Brown's top managers — finance director Ronnie Deese and Lambert — do more of the day-to-day redevelopment work.
On average, the pair spends about 20 hours of personal time each week in Lacoochee. They are hashing out the details of a grant for a new community center at Stanley Park. They organized a Lake Jovita fundraiser that raised $200,000 for the project. They brought U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson to the community. They lobbied county commissioners for a new ball field and other improvements.
"The majority of the people want to help themselves," Lambert said. "It's just they haven't had a voice."
Lee Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.