Local Initiatives

Fla. Co-op Makes Way For New Community Center

By Michael W. Kahn | ECT Staff Writer Published: February 17th, 2014

In July 2010 the idea of building a new community center for the hardscrabble town of Lacoochee, Fla., was just a dream. But with a lot of determination from the local electric cooperative, the dream is now reality just three-and-a-half years later in a prime example of rural economic development.

Sen. Bill Nelson (in jeans) and Billy E. Brown, general manager of Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative, cut the ribbon at a new community center. (Photo By: Richard K. Riley)

Sen. Bill Nelson (in jeans) and Billy E. Brown, general manager of Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative, cut the ribbon at a new community center. (Photo By: Richard K. Riley)

On Jan. 31, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., joined officials of Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative and other dignitaries in a crowd of some 400, at the ribbon cutting for the new Lacoochee Community Center.

It was a long way from July 28, 2010, when Withlacoochee held a “Visioning Day.” Three years earlier, the Dade City-based co-op had taken over service from an investor-owned utility, and wanted to do more than just upgrade the decrepit electric system. It wanted to turn around Lacoochee and neighboring Trilby, two communities that never recovered from the 1959 shuttering of the local sawmill.

Since that hot July day when busloads of reporters, community leaders and lawmakers saw the need firsthand, a lot has happened. New Habitat for Humanity homes are rising; dirt roads are paved; and now there’s a 16,000 square-foot community center that’s home to a gym, a health clinic, a computer center and other features.

“This historic effort was attempted twice before by others and it failed; however, when WREC got involved there was never any doubt in my mind that we would complete the project,” said Billy E. Brown, the co-op’s general manager.

WREC got more than a little help from its friends—Nelson, in particular. The senator said there are “lots of Lacoochees all over Florida,” describing places with “a treasured past” that had fallen on hard times to become “shadows of their former selves.”

Private and government funds paid for the nearly $2 million center, with WREC doing a good deal of the fundraising. “The effort was stellar,” said Nelson.

While the community center’s arrival is a major milestone, WREC’s role in restoring Lacoochee is far from over.

“We are now focused on bringing economic development and jobs to the area,” said David Lambert, manager of member relations. The co-op recently purchased a 144-acre shovel-ready site at an exit along Interstate 75 to help lure a major employer.

“Also, we found out that we made it to the short list for the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Neighborhood Implementation Grant,” Lambert said. “If we receive it we will continue our efforts to upgrade housing and infrastructure, focus on education and social programs, and further economic development activities.”

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