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Wednesday, Aug 27, 2014
Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Center opens to hopes of recreated grandeur

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LACOOCHEE — These truths we believe to be self-evident. Good drives out bad. Light drives out darkness. Hope drives out despair.

And now we can say this: Good starts drive out inertia, because success drives out failure.

That, at least, is our sense of things in the heady aftermath of what happened beneath a sturdy roof on a rainy Friday afternoon in Lacoochee, a small patch of Florida first trampled, then forgotten, in the hurly-burley of the 20th Century’s second half.

Friday afternoon, with 276 folding chairs set up in neatly arranged rows, doors to the Lacoochee Community Center were flung open for the first time, and nearly 400 people filed in. Here’s a sense of the place: Big as the audience was, it didn’t feel even remotely crowded.

It was an event too rare in our modern experience. Democrats and Republicans standing shoulder to shoulder, clapping each other on the back, saying things — as Wesley Chapel Republican and state House Speaker Will Weatherford did — like this: “We just proved that government can work.”

***

It worked, most of all, because the private sector provided the original energy, spirit and, yes, cash. So much of each that no public official from the West Pasco Government Center to Tallahassee to Washington D.C. could in good conscience ignore them.

Billy Brown, boss of Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative, got the bear’s share of praise, but you couldn’t have swung a paint roller without hitting someone who hadn’t written, cumulatively, checks reaching five figures. Amazing. Just plain amazing.

“There are lots of Lacoochees all over Florida,” Bill Nelson, Florida’s senior U.S. senator, was saying. “Places that had had a treasured past, but had fallen into disrepair, had lost their grandeur, and became shadows of their former selves.”

Some of those places are gone, Nelson said, lost to irresistible change; and some of those places creep along day by day, clinging to past glories and false dreams of an unlikely rescue. “You see them around, even here,” says John Hagen, head of the Pasco Economic Development Council. “If only the mill would reopen. If only a big employer would move in.

“That’s not the way it happens.”

***

Communities recover, says state Sen. Wilton Simpson, knocking the wooden cabinet at the reception desk, by uniting for a purpose, setting an outlandish goal, withstanding doubters, recruiting private-sector shakers, rolling up a decent bank account and then — and only then — seeing whether the government might lend a hand.

After that, you flatly refuse to take no for an answer.

All that and more was why the 400 braved the day’s downpours. Because this sort of thing doesn’t happen every day. Because people everywhere are full of good ideas and laudable intentions, but they often don’t have the sort of cohesiveness it takes to hold together for the six, eight, 10 years needed to make things, such as this center, happen.

“The effort was stellar,” says Nelson, “just stellar.”

It’s a 16,000-square-foot miracle, says Simpson, who was there almost from the start, when it was an annual struggle just coming up with the money to keep the nearby Boys & Girls Club going. Now look around. A gymnasium dominates, waiting for its floor and basketball goals. Just there, tucked into a cove on the south side, is room for a stage and other theatrical appurtenances.

Across the way an office wing will house a clinic, a sheriff’s substation, a library, a computer lab and space for job training.

This is what 85-year-old “Mama” Alta Wispus, reared in Lacoochee and rooted to it like an oak, who remembers when Lacoochee’s community center was a tiny house in the middle of the Cummer saw mill workers’ quarters, said about this new and sparkling place: “My God, my God, how great Thou art.”

***

For all of that, for all the nearly $2 million raised through private efforts and government matches, now is when the real work begins. The building that will be asked to be more than a building is nearly open for business. Open to see what comes next.

“Come back in 15 years,” Simpson told the crowd, “and we will see if what we think is going to happen has happened.” Later, to an audience of one, he expanded. “I’ve always said education is the key to breaking the cycle of generational poverty. This place will help do that. And we’ll find out fast if we’re right.

“I’m not saying Lacoochee Elementary will be an A school in four years. And I’m not saying if it is, it’ll all be because of this center,” he said. “But there’s going to be improvement over there, and this place will be part of it. It’ll be part of the mosaic.”

A stellar piece of the mosaic, one might add, one that shows while there are many similar places lost to time and despair, the original Lacoochee may yet recreate a new era of grandeur.

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