LACOOCHEE — A trip through this community reveals rundown homes, dirt roads and few parks. And not a single doctor's office.
That will change when the area, known for half a century as the poorest part of Pasco County, gets a 12,800-square-foot community center. Premier Community Healthcare Group Inc. has announced it will operate a primary health care clinic in the center, to be located near Stanley Park. Construction is set to begin by year's end.
"We will provide one day of primary care services each week at the onset, and will adjust hours and services provided as demand warrants," said Premier CEO Kim Schuknecht. "This is an exciting opportunity for us to be a part of."
Residents now have to travel to Premier's clinic in Dade City more than 8 miles away. A medical clinic operates in Ridge Manor about 5 miles north in Hernando County, but it doesn't accept Medicaid.
Premier, which is nonprofit and qualified to compete for government grants, accepts Medicaid, as well as Medicare and private insurance plans. It also provides pediatric care.
That will make it convenient for the 100 children who are part of the Lewis Abraham Boys & Girls Club that will occupy the community center.
"There are many people in this area who have not had access to appropriate health care," said Karen Marler, former principal at Lacoochee Elementary School and a leader of a Trilby-Lacoochee citizens group. "This has long been a goal … to provide health care (physical, mental and emotional) services to residents."
Schuknecht pointed out the statistics: Half of the adults in the 1,700 resident community lack a high school education. The median income is 55 percent lower than the countywide average. Nearly all the kids at Lacoochee Elementary School get free meals because their parents' incomes fall below the federal poverty line.
Lacoochee is home to few teachers, and the school sometimes has struggled to find instructors willing to commute there. Transportation is limited, with one county bus route beginning at Stanley Park.
"The need is great," Schuknecht said.
Once a thriving community on a major railroad line in northeast Pasco, Lacoochee never really recovered after the Cummer Cypress Co. sawmill closed in 1959. Now, the main industries are convenience stores. Visiting officials on bus tours gasp at the poor housing conditions.
The community gained prominence after the 2003 shooting death of sheriff's Lt. Charles "Bo" Harrison, killed while on patrol near a nightclub. Efforts to improve Lacoochee only have gained traction in recent years.
The community center, located just north of the football field at Stanley Park, would serve as a hub for Lacoochee. It is being paid for with $1 million from the state and private efforts spearheaded by Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative, which began serving the area in 2007 in a territory swap with Progress Energy. So far more than $900,000 has been raised.
Kids would enjoy an indoor basketball court and have easy access to play outside. There also would be a concession stand for Police Athletic League youth football games.
Access to health care, advocates say, will go a long way toward improving the quality of life.
"All the research tells us that early intervention is the key to healthy life styles," Marler said. "This is a great beginning."
This report includes information from Times files.