John Emmanuel played a few pick-up basketball games at Stanley Park one evening last week. The skinny 12-year-old tried jump shots over bigger kids, scurried on defense and winced with disappointment after just missing a behind-the-back pass. As the games went on, daylight turned to dusk. Someone turned a switch that bathed the two courts in light. Until recently, that scene hadn't played out in Lacoochee for 10 years. "When it gets dark, it lights up the court like never before," Emmanuel said. "It's awesome."
Repeated vandalism forced parks staffers to remove the lights, and nobody put them back up. Now, civic leaders promise that won't be a problem. This spring, they convinced the county to install the lights and give kids a little longer each night to shoot hoops.
The community still needs a lot of help. But, like the basketball court at night, there are several signs of progress in Pasco's poorest area. You could say the lights are coming back on in Lacoochee.
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Lacoochee's story has long been linked with the Cummer Cypress Co. Sitting next to the Green Swamp and a rail line, the community thrived until the sawmill closed in 1959. The area never really recovered. These days, convenience stores count as a major industry. Groups of unemployed men sit drinking for hours underneath a tree. At least one home last week got power from an extension cord strung across the lawn to a neighbor.
This isn't the first time progress has been promised in Lacoochee. In 2003, after sheriff's Lt. Charles "Bo" Harrison was shot to death while on patrol near a nightclub, community leaders tried to improve the area. Those efforts never really got going.
"When you're dealing with a community that has little hope for tomorrow, they can't see beyond tomorrow," said Ronnie Deese, an executive with Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative, which has been helping with redevelopment efforts. "They're trying to get through today."
Deese is optimistic Lacoochee will turn around. Why? The current crop of leaders is able to look beyond racial divides, he said. Politicians are starting to pay more attention. There are signs of buy-in from residents.
Over the past several months, Trilby activist Richard Riley has seen several encouraging "baby steps."
• Next year's county budget will likely include about $27,000 to build a second field at Stanley Park that could be used for football or soccer. A lingering problem at the park is drainage issues at the softball field, though Deese said he's pushing county leaders to fix it.
• Deese also is collecting money for a new community center at the park. With a $300,000 county grant and another $350,000 in private donations, he's about two-thirds of the way toward a $1 million goal. The Boys & Girls Club would relocate there from smaller quarters. The center would also have indoor basketball courts and an auditorium for school plays and community meetings.
• About a year ago, the state Division of Forestry used about 45 truckloads of dirt to fill deep potholes on Coit Road heading into the Green Swamp. Riley said he hopes an abandoned ball field and picnic pavilion in the forest can be restored one day. On a drive through the swamp a few weeks ago, Riley noticed a sheriff's deputy on his daily patrol. He stopped the deputy to say thanks.
"We're having more sheriff patrols here than we've ever had before," he said. "I'm tickled pink."
• Three of eight planned new Habitat for Humanity homes are under construction across the street from the old mill site. Tom Finnerty, president of Habitat's east and central Pasco operations, said the group will build 50 homes in Lacoochee over the next several years and is working with the county to upgrade road and utility infrastructure.
"We hope to be able to really do more than just build a house," Finnerty said. "It's not whether we can pull it off — we're going to pull it off. It'll happen, and I think we'll see a better Lacoochee because of it."
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After football practice ended for the Police Athletic League youth teams, volunteer coach Aaron McClamma, 22, crossed the basketball court on the way to his car. He couldn't remember a time when there were lights at the court. It's almost a fairness issue, he said. All the other courts at county parks have lights — why not here?
"Somebody's got to help these kids," said McClamma, who grew up in Trilby and now lives in Dade City. "It's a good bunch of kids. Lacoochee gets a bad rep or whatnot, but it's not a bad place."
Fate Quinn, 21, stops by the courts nearly every day, sometimes just to shoot hoops by himself. He said the lights allow kids to play longer or practice at night if they're shy about their game. Improvements at the park like the lights and the new community center, he said, will help keep children out of trouble. "That'll stop a lot of the problems out here," he said.
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Karen Marler, the head of a citizen redevelopment committee, said current improvements won't die out like earlier efforts.
"Lacoochee has been ignored for so many years, and it's not being ignored anymore," she said.
Consider several less visible changes that County Commissioner Ted Schrader said could reap future rewards.
He secured a special taxing district around Lacoochee and Trilby called a Community Redevelopment Area. As property values begin to increase, higher tax revenue will be set aside for improvements in the area. That money could be used for nearly anything, including paving substandard roads and building sidewalks.
Pasco also won a competitive $1 million grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to identify and clean up old environmental waste sites. Part of the grant will be used for the Cummer Mill site, where officials found old gasoline storage tanks in the 1980s. Being designated as a "brownfield" will allow a new owner to win tax breaks and grants to clean up the property.
Such a move could be key to bringing in a major industrial plant, and the jobs that come with it.
County officials also have plans to build a wastewater plant just south of Lacoochee. Utilities director Bruce Kennedy said the plant would replace an outdated facility that serves the public housing complex Cypress Manor. He is waiting for increased demand, such as more residents or a new business, before construction can begin.
"There's a lot of stuff that's happening up there," said Schrader, noting the county's long-term goal is to create an industrial corridor between Dade City and Lacoochee that takes advantage of the major rail line along U.S. 301.
Dade City Mayor Scott Black, who grew up in Trilby and is considered an unofficial historian of the area, said the developments could signal the early stages of a turnaround for the community.
"To be on the radar screen is wonderful thing," he said.
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Emmanuel, the 12-year-old, will be in seventh grade this fall at Pasco Middle, old enough to join the basketball team. He's confident, holding his own in a two-on-two game against high schoolers.
During a break, he watched the PAL football practice across the park. That got him dreaming.
"They might as well make a basketball team," he said. "All they've got to do is hand out a couple fliers, and they'll have a team — easy."
He added: "They need to start doing stuff like that. There's too much bad stuff going on."
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.