Efforts to build a community center in Lacoochee got a boost Monday from an unlikely source: the austere $70 billion state budget.
As part of a budget deal announced by legislative leaders, the community center would receive $1 million. Combined with $900,000 in earlier donations, that would be enough to begin construction by August on the 12,800-square-foot building in Pasco's poorest community.
"It's not only the right thing to do for our community and these children, it's also a wise investment in our state," said House Speaker-designate Will Weatherford, who secured the money. "It's one of the most impoverished areas in the state of Florida."
Some critics question why this year's budget has several hometown earmarks — or "turkeys" in Tallahassee lingo — while also cutting reimbursement rates for hospitals, closing prisons and reducing support for Florida's 11 universities.
During the next few weeks, Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said he plans to make the case to Gov. Rick Scott that the project isn't just another turkey. "When you look at the unemployment rate, the dropout rate — the hope is to try and create some stability over there," he said.
Lawmakers are scheduled to approve the state spending plan by Friday. Then, the Lacoochee money would only await the governor's approval.
That is far from assured.
Last spring, Scott displayed his conservative stripes by slashing a record $615 million from the state budget, mostly for college construction and local projects. Three Pasco programs met Scott's veto pen: money for a low-income health care center, partial funding for a new campus of Pasco-Hernando Community College and $100,000 in job training money.
A Scott spokesman said Monday that the governor has not had time to review individual items in this year's budget and decide which ones to approve or veto.
Supporters of Lacoochee's redevelopment effort urged Scott to preserve the money.
"In my judgment, Lacoochee has sort of been the forgotten area in Pasco County," said Billy E. Brown, general manager of Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative. Since the company began serving the area in 2007, it has been a driving force in efforts to improve the community.
"It's hard for people outside of the area to recognize the need," Brown said. "I don't know if there's anything that's needed any more than to help those people up there."
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. Now, convenience stores count as a major industry and visiting officials gasp at the poor housing conditions.
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 only gained traction in recent years.
The community center, located just north of the football field at Stanley Park, would serve as a hub for Lacoochee.
Its primary tenant would be the Lewis Abraham Boys & Girls Club. The larger space would replace an aging building in a nearby public housing complex and would allow the group to serve 100 children instead of 70.
Kids would enjoy an indoor basketball court and have easy access to play outside. There would also be a concession stand for Police Athletic League youth football games.
"I think they deserve this building," said Jennie Pearson Yingling, area director for the Boys & Girls Club. "They deserve to have that hub, to be able to just have something that associates them with their community."
The community center will have space for a range of services, including the WIC program, job training and basic health care. There will be a kitchen and attached dining area that could serve as a site for the county's elderly nutrition program. Also included is a retractable stage for school plays and space for community and church meetings.
Plans also call for space for the Sheriff's Office, perhaps to complement the Officer Friendly program currently run out of the housing complex.
"Having the deputies there would be a great presence for the children," Sheriff Chris Nocco said. "We want them growing up feeling there's a strong, positive relationship with the Sheriff's Office."
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.