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16,000 square feet of hope rise for Lacoochee, as new community center prepares to open

LACOOCHEE — Growing up in the impoverished Lacoochee-Trilby area, Randy Wooten hardly would have imagined a library, gymnasium or health clinic within walking distance.

Children headed five miles to Dade City for checkups or to check out a book — when parents had time and money. A gym was out of the question.

"There was nothing like that here," said Wooten, 47, who lived in Trilby with his parents and older sister, Susie.

Childhood consisted of classes at Lacoochee Elementary School, Sunday services at the Church of Christ and tending to the tomatoes, corn and okra in the half-acre family garden. For fun, the kids rode bikes, jumped rope and played hopscotch.

"We didn't even have a park back then," he said. "Stanley Park came later. The only place (for basketball) was Lacoochee Elementary, but they closed that off in the afternoon because of liability and things like that.

"There was nothing around at all. Basically, everybody just hung out in the street."

All of that is changing thanks to a seven-year effort by community and government leaders and the Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative.

Streets are getting paved in an effort to attract potential employers. New sidewalks are going in on nearby U.S. 301. And in March, the county's housing authority will learn whether it will secure a $15 million federal grant to rebuild two 40-year-old public housing projects.

But perhaps the most visible sign of progress sits at Stanley Par, where, for the past year, a new community center has been under construction.

The 16,000-square-foot structure will house a gym, library, health clinic, kitchen, computer lab for job searches and space for after-school programs. Most of the work is finished. A ribbon-cutting is set from 2 to 4 p.m. Friday.

"This is really huge. It will offer something for everybody," said Wooten, who lives with his wife and younger daughter — the elder is in college — in a house in Lacoochee once owned by his grandparents.

Last week, men with ladders and paint buckets toiled inside the cavernous gym and other areas, while outside backhoes focused on landscaping. The aim is to complete the work by March when the Boys & Girls Club, the center's chief tenant and caretaker, is expected to move in.

Across the road sits Lacoochee Elementary. Principal Latoya Jordan lauded the center as a much-needed haven in a community short of amenities.

More than half the residents live in poverty, and about 90 percent of her students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The tiny rural community, which sits at the edge of the Green Swamp, spiraled downward after its largest employer, the Cummer Cypress sawmill, closed in 1959.

"Kids will finally have a place to go where they are safe," she said.

For decades, Lacoochee went largely unnoticed by the outside world. Then 10 years ago, Pasco sheriff's deputy Charles "Bo'' Harrison, well-known and beloved in Lacoochee, was shot and killed.

The crime shook the community. County officials questioned how to reverse the area's plight.

"I met good and decent, caring people up there," said former Sheriff Bob White, who rode through neighborhoods on horseback afterward, talking with residents. "They want to look for something better — sports, a job, a better way of life."

But getting there, they said, required more than they could muster. They needed outside help. Enter the Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative, which took over electric service in Lacoochee from Progress Energy in 2007.

In some ways, said Withlacoochee executive David Lambert, it seemed the world had left Lacoochee behind.

"You definitely felt like you were stepping back in time," he said. "It was heart-wrenching to see the poverty and despair and the lack of job opportunities for those folks."

The cooperative started meeting with civic leaders. Out of those talks emerged the community center idea. They enlisted help from county, state and federal officials, and raised funds.

Pasco earmarked $300,000 for the work. The state contributed $1 million, and the Lacoochee Area Redevelopment Corp., working with Withlacoochee, raised $550,000. The corporation is seeking more money for an endowment to fund operations and maintenance.

"We went everywhere pretty much every month looking for donations," Lambert recalled.

The project broke ground about a year ago. The structure — officially called the Lacoochee Community Center and Lewis Abraham Boys and Girls Club — will also include a deputy's office and serve as the area's only hurricane shelter.

"This community center represents hope," Lambert said. "The hope is that people will see a brighter future for themselves and their children. Before, when we looked at this community, it had remained stagnant for years. Then they saw a vision of what could happen, and they chased after it for years. Now we're seeing that hope come true."

Rich Shopes can be reached at rshopes@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

16,000 square feet of hope rise for Lacoochee, as new community center prepares to open 01/24/14 [Last modified: Friday, January 24, 2014 6:06pm]
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