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Work on Lacoochee's renewal begins behind the scenes

Sometimes it's easy to see signs of a community turning around. New homes coming in. Lights at a basketball court.

But in Lacoochee, much of the work is behind the scenes, hard to see. Officials are aiming high at a federal grant that could bring a $10 million investment to the area. The county plans to spend $3.5 million on roads and infrastructure.

A new community center should come out of the ground by the end of the year. A soccer field is coming next month. There are plans for a community garden at Lacoochee Elementary School.

"It's kind of all these promises out there," said Judy Geiger, a Lacoochee resident and member of a citizen redevelopment committee. "You just kind of keep pushing behind these promises to make sure something comes to fruition."

A major prize would be the $10 million grant through the Choice Neighborhoods program at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. About 70 percent of the money would help rehab homes, both in public housing complexes and in the surrounding Lacoochee/Trilby community.

The housing need is acute. Public housing in Lacoochee has a long list of deferred maintenance, and the county estimates that about 20 percent of homes in the area should be torn down.

"And most of those have people living in there," said George Romagnoli, Pasco's community development director.

The rest of the money could go for a variety of uses. Improved security. Early education programs. Infrastructure and job training.

The application is due in April, with winners announced by early fall. County officials will offer details about the effort at a neighborhood redevelopment meeting Monday night.

Getting the grant won't be easy. Last year, only 10 grants were awarded nationwide, and none of the 26 Florida applicants were picked. "It's the heftiest grant application we've ever done," Romagnoli said. "It's the difference between a scratch-off ticket and Powerball."

But Lacoochee has some key support in its corner. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson has taken a keen interest in the area, and his staff is helping prepare the application. Plus, the Obama administration has put an emphasis on developing poor rural areas, not just urban cores. Lacoochee and nearby Trilby could be model candidates for that type of help.

Even if Lacoochee misses out on the grant, officials say the exercise is useful. The application will identify specific community needs that can be addressed in the future with other funding sources.

There are several other pending improvements:

• Plans are coming together for a community center in Stanley Park for indoor basketball and neighborhood meetings. So far $900,000 has been raised for the project, out of a $1.2 million goal. Dirt should be turned by year's end. Supporters have scheduled a March 8 event to raise operating money for the Lewis Abraham Boys & Girls Club, which will be based in the new building.

• Construction crews will start building a second field at Stanley Park next month. It could be used for soccer or as an additional football field for practices.

• Romagnoli has $3.5 million set aside to pave roads and run utility lines in the Lacoochee area. The money is left over from the Tommytown project after construction bids came in lower than expected.

• Geiger persuaded the Dade City Garden Club to apply for a small grant from Whole Foods to build a garden at Lacoochee Elementary. Each grade would have an area where students can grow crops of their choice.

Of course, the ultimate goal is bringing jobs to the area, preferably at the Cummer sawmill industrial site that was the source of the community's prosperity so many decades ago. That's likely still several years away.

"Residents certainly realize this is going to take time," said David Lambert, the point person for Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative's community development work in the area. "It's a 10- to 12-year project."

He underscores all the behind-the-scenes work that's hard to see. To attract a major business, you need the basics. Paved roads. Central water and sewer. Good housing for workers.

Many folks credit the co-op as a driving force behind the redevelopment campaign. Similar efforts failed in the past because they lacked that institutional support.

"At least the momentum is still going," Geiger said. "This is about the fourth time I know of that it's been tried."

Added Shahra Anderson, a regional director for Sen. Nelson: "The intangible is the minds changing. Folks of like minds are coming together that at one time might have not. That speaks volumes."

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

>>if you go

Community events

Redevelopment meeting: County and Pasco Housing Authority officials will present details of the $10 million grant application at a neighborhood meeting 7 p.m. Monday at First Baptist Church of Lacoochee.

Fundraiser: Ronnie Deese, finance director for Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative, is hosting a fundraiser to raise operating money for the Lewis Abraham Boys & Girls Club. The event starts at 6 p.m. March 8 at Bird Island Lake Ranch in Darby. The event will feature prizes and a performance by the JT Curtis and the Silver Eagle band.

Work on Lacoochee's renewal begins behind the scenes 02/25/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 28, 2012 4:36pm]
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