A Public Utility’s Efforts to Address Community Poverty and Substandard Living Conditions
In 2007, WREC acquired the rights to provide electricity to its member-owners in the Lacoochee and Tilby areas of Florida from an investor-owned utility. WREC began making what would eventually total $2 million in upgrades to transmission equipment. But as the cooperative’s employees became more familiar with the region, they recognized it had other profound needs — namely, crushing poverty.
The member-controlled utility cooperative soon expanded its mission from merely providing reliable electricity to actively improving the living conditions in the area. WREC organized public meetings to enable the Lacoochee-Trilby community to adopt a strategic master plan for change in the area, and then partnered with elected officials, community activists, and neighboring businesses to raise a warchest of more than $9 million, which has allowed the coalition to build and rehab homes, community centers, clinics and sheriff substations.
In addition, the utility has created other programs and services to improve the quality of living in the community, including financial assistance for community members who have suffered catastrophic events, scholarships for high school seniors, and more than $223 million in rebates to member-owners. WREC officials are now seeking a federal grant that could bring an additional $10 million investment to the area through the Choice Neighborhoods program managed by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. The ultimate goal is bringing jobs to the area, but reaching that goal requires paved roads, central water and sewer, and good housing for workers — accomplishments that WREC estimates could take an additional 10 to 12 years.