Dave Armstrong couldn't resist eliciting roars of approval from the 40 children lined up outside the new Boys & Girls Club at Stanley Park.
"Are you guys excited?" he shouted.
"Yeah," came the deafening reply.
"Are you really excited?"
With that, Armstrong, executive director of Pasco County Boys & Girls Clubs, flung open the front door of the community center that has been under construction since last summer across the street from Lacoochee Elementary School. For far longer, it's been viewed by county and community leaders as a long-overdue asset for this impoverished, rural corner of northeast Pasco.
The community center officially opens today, but after Boys & Girls Clubs officials received a certificate of occupancy from the county last week, they opted to give the children in grades K-3 a sneak peek. The group rushed in laughing and saucer-eyed, barely able to stay single file as instructed.
Boys & Girls Clubs officials long anticipated when they could let the kids inside. The center will replace the old club at the Cypress Manor public housing complex.
"They kept asking, 'When's it going to open? When's it going to open?' " said Jennie Pearson Yingling, director of annual giving for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay.
Excitement has been building since January when officials held a ribbon-cutting for the 16,000-square-foot structure. Workers have been busy since installing offices, a library, a computer lab, a game room, a meeting room, a kitchen and a dining hall. The site also will house a health clinic.
Most of that work is finished and crews are expected to shift to the final phase: a gymnasium floor and stage for concerts, plays and community meetings. The gym will house a full-sized basketball court, six hoops and have room for two volleyball courts. That work should be finished in two to three months.
A place to play and learn, the community center also has become a symbol for progress for Lacoochee, one of the poorest areas in Florida. More than half of residents here live in poverty and about 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The Boys & Girls Clubs provides a dinner at 4 p.m. for children five days a week.
"I think it's symbolic of hope," Armstrong said of the center. "It instills a sense of ownership in the community."
Seven years ago, the Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative took over service to Lacoochee from Progress Energy, now Duke Energy. Cooperative executives touring the area resolved to help and met with community leaders to brainstorm. The community center emerged as the top priority.
Working with the civic group the Lacoochee-Trilby-Trilacoochee Steering Committee, the cooperative helped raise about $1 million in donations. Other sources included the state, county and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Most recently, UPS donated $30,000 for computers.
The total investment, including public and private funding: about $2.5 million.
"This has definitely been a transformation," said Dave Lambert, a Withlacoochee executive.
"It wouldn't have started without a vision from the residents," he said. "I can't tell you how many people stepped up, community members, the county, a U.S. senator, Withlacoochee Electric. It's been a labor of love for seven years."
Joshua, 9, a third-grader, was quick to point out his favorite features of the community center.
"I like that it has a gym and a game room," he said, expertly twirling a blue man on a foosball table. "And I like that we can play Xbox and foosball. I like foosball a lot."
Contact Rich Shopes at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236. Follow @richshopes.