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Northeast Pasco community welcomes prospects of progress

LACOOCHEE — Last year, just outside the county's poorest community, a Dollar General opened its doors.

Clean and brand new, the store brought affordable shopping to a place that had few other options. But the Dollar General also symbolized a tangible bit of good fortune for a company town that 50 years ago lost its company — and never quite recovered.

"I remember when they started construction," said Michael Brittingham II, director of the Boys and Girls Club in Lacoochee. "The families were like, 'Finally, we've got a store!' "

When Lacoochee and Trilby residents recently drew up a list of community assets, there was the Dollar General — right up there with the churches, elementary school, the park and social service organizations.

That a 1-year-old chain store made the list underscores the need in the area, especially in Lacoochee, where nearly half of the families live below the poverty level.

But some community leaders say they believe the stars could start to align in this northeast part of the county.

Pasco commissioners are close to adopting a new redevelopment plan that could be a significant step in luring both public and private investment, most notably to the withered heart of Lacoochee: a 135-acre industrial site where little has thrived since the Cummer Cypress Co. shut down its sawmill operations in 1959.

Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative took over the service area from Progress Energy and is replacing an old and unreliable electrical system. And powerful politicians are taking an interest: A representative from U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson's office toured the area last week with Withlacoochee and Lacoochee Elementary School officials.

"It's been years in the making, but I think we've finally got everyone's attention," said Wilton Simpson, a prominent businessman who has lived in the Trilby area since he was 17. "For the first time in my life, I can see it on the horizon."

• • •

The proposed Lacoochee-Trilby plan talks about a lot of things — from attracting a bed-and-breakfast in Trilby to building a swimming pool, library and day care center near Stanley Park in Lacoochee.

The diversity of recommendations reflects the distinctions between the two sister communities divided by U.S. 301.

Lacoochee's supply of run-down houses stands in contrast to a better housing stock in Trilby, which also boasts an equestrian community filled with upscale homes.

"One thing alone can't bring northeast Pasco into a viable, profitable area," said Trilby resident Richard Riley, a retiree from Maine. "But a series of things can. Everybody has got their own strengths."

In the eyes of many, the most critical piece of the plan is creating jobs.

"There's nothing," said Jonah Byrd, a Lacoochee resident who polishes rims at a Dade City garage. "Usually if they get jobs around here, they don't last."

And when people talk about jobs, they talk about bringing something to the site of the old Cummer mill operation in Lacoochee. Today the property is up for sale; its owner, Columbia Grain, uses a small corner of the land for storage.

The consultant who helped put together the plan suggested trying to lure "green" industries, though some say that the priority should be on businesses that would employ locals.

Only 41 percent of the adult Lacoochee population has at least a high school degree, according to 2000 U.S. Census figures. That's about half the nationwide average.

Less than half of people age 16 years and older work.

"No need to come in here with an IBM kind of company if people aren't ready for that," said Ruby Stewart, a retired school teacher who lives in Lacoochee. "They need to bring in jobs that felons can work at."

"We all feel good about saying 'green businesses,' " said Simpson. "We'll just take jobs."

• • •

The industrial site's best selling point? It's served by a rail spur that could be used to ship out manufactured goods.

"The key to it is the rail," said County Commissioner Ted Schrader, who helped secure the $50,000 to do the strategic plan.

But the site lacks two key elements: Good roads for truck traffic and wastewater capacity.

Simpson, who is now chairman of the Pasco Economic Development Council, said leaders have courted interested businesses in recent years — he declined to say what kind but said they might have meant 500 to 1,000 jobs — but nothing has panned out.

"Each time, we generally fail because of infrastructure needs," he said.

The new plan calls for one day building new roads for truck traffic to get to the site. (Currently, traffic goes right by Lacoochee Elementary School.)

As far as wastewater, there is one small plant at the public housing complex near the industrial site. But that system is too small and plagued with too many problems to be useful for a potential industry, said Bruce Kennedy, Pasco's utilities director.

Pasco officials have discussed teaming up with Dade City or Hernando County to build the kind of wastewater plant that would serve a major business. Nothing has materialized, said Kennedy, in large part because there haven't been any interested businesses to justify the investment.

"It's kind of a chicken-and-egg situation," he said.

Now, Schrader said, officials could use the strategic plan to go after state or federal dollars to help build the infrastructure.

• • •

Progress has been promised before in Lacoochee.

In 2003, after Pasco Sheriff's Lt. Charles "Bo" Harrison was gunned down while patrolling Lacoochee, the crime and poverty in the area came into full focus.

Civic leaders worked together after Harrison's death to try to improve life, but their efforts never gained a strong foothold.

But local leaders hope that with renewed attention, things might be different this time.

A long-discussed community center at Stanley Park — a joint venture between the school district and the Boys and Girls Club — could be about four months away from construction, according to Simpson.

Stanley Park lost its full-time park attendant due to county budget cuts, but the Pasco Police Athletic League is now helping out and the Withlacoochee cooperative donated lights, said Lacoochee Elementary School Principal Karen Marler.

Marler said past movements to improve life in the area came up short because only a few people were involved.

Now, government and business leaders have seats at the table, and a variety of residents showed up at county-sponsored workshops over the summer to help draft the plan.

In the end, she said, the goal is to give opportunities to the children leaving her school each afternoon.

"The greatest difficulty for children is the lack of vision in this area," she said. "Every day I walk in here, I see the eyes of these children, and their eyes are bright. They have hope."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Pasco commissioners will decide Nov. 3 whether to adopt the new Lacoochee-Trilby Strategic Master Plan. To see more information, visit tinyurl.com/lacoocheetrilby.

Northeast Pasco community welcomes prospects of progress 10/17/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 17, 2009 3:17pm]
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