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Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Community center packs great expectations

As buildings go, the 16,000-square-foot pile squatting like a great blue frog on a knoll presiding over Stanley Park isn’t that much to look at, unless your tastes run to 1920s Quonset huts. Just down the road, the historic Pasco County Courthouse is grander; the Dade City Business Park is larger; the Habitat for Humanity bungalows on nearby Coit Road are more charming.

Yeah, well, big deal.

The new community center never was going for glamorous, or stately, or awe-inspiring, or any of a dozen other adjectives critics apply to architecture they admire. Its design is utilitarian because its purpose — officially, anyway — is utilitarian. The folks who call Lacoochee home, more than half of them living in poverty, have needs the center was designed and constructed to meet.

Accordingly, the center packs a regular Swiss Army knife of practical offerings: gymnasium/theater, medical clinic, library, computer center, job training classroom, sheriff’s substation, full kitchen and dining room. It also has been strengthened to serve as a shelter during weather emergencies.

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In short, with the possible exception of Lacoochee Elementary School across the street, the community center is the most important building to rise here since 1922, when W.W. Cummer broke ground on the lumber mill that was the thundering heart of a thriving company town until it shut down in 1959.

It is not a stretch to say things went from bad to worse from there, the master stroke coming when the federal government, in full “War on Poverty” vigor, established a pair of housing projects for low-income families, paying scant attention to two stubborn facts: Lacoochee was miles from the nearest employment center and lacked reliable public transportation.

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The center is an important rung in a ladder leading to better days. Not simply because of what it is designed to provide, but also because of how it came about, rising from intensely localized efforts that began some seven years ago, when the Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative became the area’s service provider.

With a reliable and influential corporate partner at their side, community activists found their voice, a common purpose and, perhaps for the first time, reliable allies in Lacoochee’s hardscrabble neighbors, Trilby and Trilacoochee.

Not inconsequentially, it was also about this time Lacoochee blipped onto the radar of Bill Nelson, Florida’s senior U.S. senator, when staffers tucked a newspaper story about locals’ efforts to bootstrap themselves out of their doldrums into his homework stack. The Space Coast Democrat, who once orbited Earth in the shuttle Columbia, has an astronaut’s appreciation for how things fit together once you get past lines drawn by bureaucrats. Even before he laid eyes on Lacoochee for the first time, he knew how and why it belongs. Now, having become a regular visitor and an enthusiastic booster, Nelson says with disarming frequency, “I love Lacoochee.”

Nelson’s high-profile fandom is much of the reason he will keynote today’s ribbon-cutting, set for 2 p.m. The money to build the center, gratifyingly, came from sources other than Washington — even though, it bears noting, in the whole of human history there never was a project more shovel-ready.

Who got it done, then? The tireless Lacoochee Area Development Corporation raised $500,000. County commissioners kicked in $300,000. And the state, nodding to the rising and persuasive influence of Wesley Chapel Republican Will Weatherford even before he took the Speaker’s gavel, came up with $1 million.

There’s more to do, of course. Even as freight trains rumble past several times a day, the tracks into Lacoochee remain the spur to nowhere. No warehouse has risen to spark an employment surge.

For the moment, then, it’ll be up to the new building to be more than a building. It must be the place that helps restore Lacoochee’s sense of place. It’s a big job, but, as noted previously, the center isn’t just another pretty face.

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