LACOOCHEE — Sen. Bill Nelson stepped off a bus and made his way through a crowd of schoolchildren to see one of Lacoochee's newest and nicest homes: a modest two-bedroom place with a new Florida Gators chair on the front porch.
After dedicating two Habitat for Humanity houses, Nelson got back on the bus Tuesday morning with a gaggle of federal officials and saw some of the community's most ramshackle living quarters. The buses slowly passed by and one official whispered, "This is alarming."
The two-term Democrat, who also made a short stop at Lacoochee Elementary, said he wanted to get an update on redevelopment efforts in an area he "fell in love with" after he visited on a similar bus tour a year ago.
The remarkable thing about Tuesday's visit is that up until a few years ago, it would have been hard to imagine such attention from a major politician.
"We appreciate you being here," said John Finnerty, president of east and central Pasco's Habitat for Humanity. "It means a lot to us and this community."
Habitat is building eight homes on what was once a vacant lot off Coit Road that used to hold a one-room schoolhouse. The group plans to build 50 homes throughout Lacoochee over the next several years.
George Romagnoli, the county's community development director, said the new homes will "help make Lacoochee what it once was."
Back in the day, it was a thriving mill town. But it never really recovered when the Cummer Cypress Co. sawmill closed in 1959. Many civic leaders began paying more attention to the area in 2003, after sheriff's Lt. Charles "Bo" Harrison was shot to death while on patrol near a nightclub. But turnaround efforts have only begun to gain traction in the past few years.
The community got a different kind of help Monday night, when Nelson was the headliner at a fundraiser at the Lake Jovita Golf and Country Club, which is a 20-minute drive from Lacoochee but a whole world away.
Dozens of Pasco's movers and shakers dined at the swank country club that features floor-to-ceiling windows and an impressive view of the nearby golf course. At the dinner, Nelson implored them to cut checks for a new community center at Lacoochee's Stanley Park.
The center would house the Boys & Girls Club and would roughly double the size of the current facility. It would allow the group to add 35 kids to the current enrollment of 70. It would add an indoor basketball court as well as space for aid agencies, job training and community meetings.
Officials with the Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative have raised $650,000 toward the center, which would cost $1.2 million to build. Besides money raised Monday, a federal grant could make up much of the difference.
"It's important we keep the spotlight on this area," Nelson said. "We've got a responsibility to our brothers and sisters."
Nelson said he is working on economic development ideas with officials at CSX, which owns a rail line that runs through Lacoochee. The line is expected to get an influx of traffic over the next few years as the Sunrail commuter rail project opens in Orlando. As those trains begin to carry passengers, freight traffic will be diverted to the company's other major line along the western side of the state.
Nelson called himself a "facilitator" to get federal help for the area, though he stressed that residents also have to get behind the effort with the help of businesses.
Back on the tour bus, the group saw that Lacoochee still needs a lot of help.
Riders saw some of the area's worst homes on Cox Road, including a beaten up mobile home, where a man sat in a lawn chair under an ailing porch.
"Some of these homes are quite liveable," Nelson said. "But you saw some that folks just shouldn't be living in."