Area's hardscrabble reality once held promise of hope

A community that enjoyed a 35-year boom through the mid 1900s has seen a steady decline.

St. Petersburg Times
published September 14, 2003


LACOOCHEE - The children loved Saturdays.

Some would pour their hearts out into a big black microphone; others would run through slithery break dance moves.

Often, after shows on the basketball courts at Cypress Villas public housing complex, there sat a row of glistening trophies.

The children didn't know where they came from, and they didn't care. All they knew was that it was a soda pop party, with laughter and kickball, softball and corn dogs.

And it was always there in the 1980s. Or for a few years, at least, until the man they knew as Alvin Lee died in a car crash, and the weekend talent shows stopped. No one picked up the ball to carry on the fun.

"We always had something to do," said Sierra O'Neal, who grew up in Lacoochee, and like many others of her generation, remembers the short-lived talent shows 20 years ago. "We don't do that now."

Talk to residents in Lacoochee, particularly in the rough-and-tumble section near the railroad tracks called Mosstown, and you'll hear the same complaint.

Little for the children to do. No jobs or training for young people. No newly paved roads or squeaky clean gyms like those in other parts of the county. Too many Lacoochee youth ending up selling drugs or in jail.

Residents complain that social programs are scattered, when they exist at all. Leadership is lacking. When role models do spring up, they often move away or die too soon, as Lee did, in a car crash. Or at the wrong end of a gun.

"Nobody really wants to step up," O'Neal said.

All this in a community that was once the county's economic engine. But when sheriff's Lt. Charles "Bo" Harrison patroled these corners before he was gunned down in June, what he saw were dirt streets and collapsing clapboard houses on septic tanks. Yet just across the county sit gated subdivisions and one of the biggest suburban development booms in the state.

"Lacoochee is like a hole," said Hartman Cooper, pastor of Suncoast Bibleway Ministries of Dade City, who has led revivals in Lacoochee. "It's just a dark spot."


It wasn't always that way.

Lacoochee was settled in the 1880s, but it came to life in 1922 when the Cummer & Sons Cypress Co. mill opened.

The boom lasted about 35 years. By 1958, the ancient cypress trees that lined Florida's waterways had been harvested out of existence, the mill closed and the town began drying up.

Lewis Abraham, now a Dade City businessman, used film clips shot in 1946 and 1958 to create a documentary about the Cummer mill and Lacoochee.

"You're about to see a way of life in Florida that existed up until a few years ago. ... It's also a way of life that does not exist anymore," he says in the opening narrative.

One scene shows the last giant cypress logs rolling through the mill, as Abraham narrates.

"It was a hard way to make a living, but at the time, 10 cents an hour and regular work was pretty well thought of.

"They knew this was coming, but nobody ever believed it ..."

Now, Lacoochee's streets are for the most part empty of active businesses. There's a grain mill, but it isn't a major employer. The old stores are boarded up near the post office.

Shirley Ann Marsee started work in the post office in the 1960s and rose to postmaster, a job she held until June. Moving to Lacoochee as a child in 1945, Marsee recalled an idyllic childhood.

"There were little grocery stores everywhere. We didn't have Publix or Winn-Dixie; we all had local stores we would buy from. We all walked to school," she said. "It was wonderful. We had great neighbors. You didn't lock your doors."

The town even had a movie theater.

When the mill closed, those who could moved away.

"If you lived here and had a wife and children to feed, you went where the jobs were. A lot of people moved to Dade City," Marsee said.

Now, Abraham said, Lacoochee has a dwindling voting block, little money and less influence. Politicians, he said, neglect it.

He added, "If anybody in Lacoochee votes for a single (incumbent) county commissioner, they should be ashamed of themselves."

Looking for work

New jobs in Pasco follow other jobs.

"Existing industries are going to do expansions where they are currently located," said John Walsh of the Pasco County Economic Development Council. And that's not in Lacoochee.

Most business expansion stems from Pinellas and Hillsborough companies, he said.

"They don't want to move so far to lose their employee base. Lacoochee is too far right now," he added. "The (State Road) 54 corridor is where a lot are relocating" to be close to the housing boom.

The EDC is trying to jump-start job growth in east Pasco through a HUB zone around Dade City. In a HUB zone, small businesses in economically depressed areas can win federal contracts if 35 percent of their jobs go to residents in the zone.

Lacoochee has potential with access to State Road 50, U.S. 301 and 98 and Interstate 75. Not to mention the rail line that runs through it. For now, though, Lacoochee doesn't have much to offer its residents in jobs.

"Lacoochee was the biggest city in Pasco at one time," said county Community Development Manager George Romagnoli. "Now there's no place to work and no place to go."

According to a St. Petersburg Times poll, almost two-thirds of Lacoochee-area residents think job opportunities for young adults there are "below average." By comparison, only a third of other Pasco residents think employment chances for young adults are below average.

In need of help

Romagnoli and Lacoochee residents say the county could be doing more to help.

Yes, the Community Development Department has funneled more than $1-million in federal money into fixing public housing units in Lacoochee, Romagnoli said. It built 21 new homes on Patti Lane with federal and state money and has paid half the mortgage for residents, who can borrow the rest at 0 percent interest.

But Lacoochee has not seen the elaborate redevelopment overhaul like that in Tommytown and Carver Heights. Those plans called for new sewer and water lines; tearing down old homes and helping build new ones; interest-free home loans; and newly paved roads.

The county chose to redevelop Carver Heights east of Dade City because it was the county's poorest area, Romagnoli said. Tommytown, north of Dade City, was the largest blighted area.

"We don't have the money to handle every problem area of the county at any one time," he said.

Another point that helped Tommytown: leadership.

"In Tommytown, there was already some social infrastructure with Farmworkers Self-Help," Romagnoli said. The nonprofit agency, headed by Margarita Romo, worked closely with the county.

"There is no leadership in Lacoochee," Romagnoli said. "There are no resident councils, and the old families aren't stepping up."

Abraham agreed.

"What Lacoochee needs is a future," he said. "What Lacoochee needs is to steal Margarita Romo."

Putting together a plan

What it has is Isa Blanford.

Blanford, of Dade City, works for the Pasco County Housing Authority at Cypress Villas in Lacoochee.

Since the death of Lt. Harrison, Blanford has organized business and political leaders as well as Lacoochee residents. The group has met several times, breaking down goals for Lacoochee in three categories: crime, children and commerce.

There's talk of job fairs, health fairs, vocational training and a recreation complex.

O'Neal, 27 and a field supervisor with Healthy Families, who owns one of those county-subsidized homes on Patti Lane, said the effort must be collective. Times changed while she was away at college, she said. Neighbors used to look out for one another, scolding wayward children. No more. Girls are pregnant at younger ages. Still, success stories, like hers, exist but aren't publicized often enough, she said.

Residents say that ministers, usually a strong presence in black communities, should take more of a leadership role in improving Lacoochee, even though many hold other jobs and live in Dade City.

Another problem, though, says 29-year-old Ebony Pickett of Lacoochee, is that young people have stopped going to church. Children need a strong family structure. However, the county could do more to help, she said.

"They could put a swimming pool somewhere," she said.

Blanford is hopeful for this and more. Maybe something positive will spring from Harrison's death.

"I know something has to happen," she said, "and unless someone brings all the expertise together, nothing will happen, and this tragedy will have been for naught."

Lacoochee facts from Census 2000

- While Pasco grew 23 percent in the 1990s, Lacoochee lost more than 700 people - 35 percent of its population.

- While Pasco's median household income grew 35 percent during the boom years, the median household income in Lacoochee went nowhere. In 1999, Lacoochee's midpoint income was $16,553 - less than half the countywide figure. Lacoochee's midpoint household income figure a decade earlier, adjusted for inflation, was $16,579 - a statistically insignificant difference.

- While Pasco added more workers and dropped its unemployment rate, Lacoochee had fewer workers and had more of them out of work. The unemployment rate in Lacoochee is nearly triple the county's rate. In Lacoochee, 14 percent of residents who are part of the labor pool (i.e., not retired) are unemployed. In Pasco County, 5 percent were unemployed. A decade ago, Lacoochee, with more workers, had 10 percent unemployment, compared to 6 percent in the county.

- In Pasco, 8 percent of families live below the federal poverty level (which is $16,895 for a family of four). In Lacoochee, 46 percent live in poverty.

- Three of every four households with a child younger than 5 were poor in Lacoochee, compared with 16 percent in the county overall.