Pasco County on Thursday landed a $300,000 federal grant to create a "road map" for revitalizing the impoverished Lacoochee and Trilby communities.
The grant is part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Choice Neighborhoods program. The award will focus on long-term strategies to improve the area, but it could also pave the way for greater federal investment. After completing the two-year planning process, Lacoochee would be a good candidate for a larger "implementation" grant to pay for tangible improvements.
"It's another positive step for that community," said David Lambert, an executive at Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative, which has been working on improving conditions in the area for several years. "It's been a long time coming, but it's definitely heading in the right direction."
Lacoochee is one of 17 communities across the country to receive the planning grant this year, and one of only a few rural areas. It is the only Florida community to win a planning grant this year. In August, the Tampa Housing Authority was named one of nine finalists for the larger Choice Neighborhood "implementation" grant. Winners of that award have not yet been announced.
George Romagnoli, Pasco's community development manager, said it's important that HUD is starting to look at poor rural communities. All of the previous winners of the larger implementation awards were inner-city neighborhoods.
"Hopefully after the two years are over they'll want to do a rural area like Lacoochee," he 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. Today it's Pasco's poorest community, with nearly all the kids at Lacoochee Elementary School getting free meals because their parents' incomes fall below the federal poverty line. Half of the adults in the 1,700-resident community lack a high school education. The main industries are convenience stores.
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 have gained traction in recent years.
The federal money that HUD awarded Thursday will be matched by $50,000 from the county and in-kind services worth $150,000 from the electric utility to recruit businesses and provide other economic development efforts.
In short, the grant would pay for an in-depth look at Lacoochee and nearby Trilby, which is home to about 400 people. "It's to help develop the road map of the way we want to go," Romagnoli said.
That includes assessing housing conditions and finding ways to increase job training, health care and other social services. The plan also calls for designing four new public housing developments and creating master plans for roads and utilities.
All of Lacoochee's public housing developments date to the late 1970s or early '80s. The county's application notes that 33 percent of homes in the area need moderate renovations and 19 percent require "substantial" rehab work. Another 10 percent are dilapidated and should be razed.
The planning process would build on a 2009 study focused on infrastructure and community identity. Those studies can then be used to guide public investment for housing or infrastructure and help convince businesses to locate in the area.
County officials decided in the spring to go after the smaller planning grant instead of a $10 million Choice Neighborhoods award. They said the county would have little chance of landing the larger award right now and would improve its odds after finishing the planning process.
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.