Survivor of Mariel Boat Lift named HCC Dean of Students

Tampa News No Comments


Yaima Serrano’s story is somewhat like the one about President Abraham Lincoln growing up in a log cabin and studying law by candlelight.

It’s every bit as impressive because it shows how a child of refugees learned a new language and grew up to excel in a challenging field and now helps other students do the same.

Yaima Serrano has been named the new dean of Student Services at Hillsborough Community College’s South County campus. And that’s quite a change from her early life, which wasn’t easy. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the perseverance and fortitude of her parents, Vilma and Pedro Rodriguez, she could have ended up living in a tent in Cuba begging for food.

A survivor of the Mariel Boat Lift, now called by some the Freedom Flotilla, Serrano was one of the 125,000 Cubans who made it to Florida in 1980 between April 15 and Oct. 31 on small boats, rafts and anything else that would float.
She was a baby then, and now has no memory of the event, only the stories from her parents, who were also interviewed by email for this story.

“My mother was 17 and my dad was 21,” said Serrano in her HCC office with floor-to-ceiling glass overlooking the front of the campus. “But even though they were married, in Cuba my mother still had to have the permission of her parents — my grandmother — before she could leave.”

Serrano’s office is a lifetime away from when she was taken below deck during the Mariel Boat Lift.

“The captain allowed my mother to take me below, because I was so young and people were vomiting.” There were no restroom facilities on most of the boats used in the lift either, so many got very ill.

Her parents remember that the weather was bad and the water very rough. But they said, “If we had to do it all over again we wouldn’t think twice. There’s nothing more important than a person’s freedom.”

Because of a poor economy amd people starving throughout Cuba, President Fidel Castro allowed more than 10,000 Cubans to take asylum with the Peruvian Embassy. But more had to be done.

An agreement between Cuba and the United States — and pressed by Latino Americans — gave permission for the boatloads of people to head from Cuba across the 90 miles of rough water to Key West.

Serrano’s parents were among the first to leave during the first month of the boatlift.

They were fortunate, they said, to be in a boat that had a captain. They said many people paddled on homemade rafts and anything else they could find or build.

When the boat riders first arrived, there were so many people there was no shelter for everyone, so many, including the Serranos, were sent to California with the help of churches. There were no real living quarters for them there either.

They said it was difficult to find even enough tents for so many people at once.

“My mother says it was just like the beginning of the movie Scarface, with tents and people everywhere” Serrano said.
Her parent’s early lives were instructive, she said, and taught her never to give up.

After only a few years of day labor, her father found a permanent job at Sears, and later he was able to transfer to Tampa.

“They feared the earthquakes in California,” she said. “Especially the big one, I think it was around 1987,” she said.

Her father later opened his own landscaping business and also worked as a subcontractor for Sears. He learned English on the job, but Serrano learned in school.

“I remember being in classes where they were speaking English and not knowing one word that was spoken,” she said.

Serrano said she can’t praise the ESOL (English as a Second Language) program enough. Gradually, the English words began to make sense.

“I still think in Spanish,” she said — without any accent or hesitation.

Four years after they arrived in the States, her brother Pedro was born. The family continued to progress, Serrano said, and that she was mentored by Virginia Perez, an educator. “She’ll never know what it meant to me to have someone help and mentor me so much,” she said.

Both Dr. Allen Witt, president of the South County college, and Kimberly French, community relations manager at HCC, praised Serrano. She was appointed dean pf Student Services on Jan. 17.

Each campus has two deans, and Dr. Craig Hardesty is academic dean.

A letter from Dr. Witt explains to the faculty that Serrano was chosen after serving as assistant dean under the campus’s founding dean of student services, Steven Stancil.

“Ms. Serrano has served the college for more than 13 years in progressively responsible positions of Student Services,” Witt said.

According to Serrano’s resume, she began as a clerical aide in 1998 and the following year was promoted to Student Assistant, helping parents and students through the financial aid process. From there she became a financial aid technician and, by 2005, a financial aid counselor. By 2008, she was managing the Financial Aid Department, and then became Student Services Manager in 2011.

She has been acting dean of Student Services throughout most of 2013.

“Ms. Serrano is one of the most talented student services professionals that I have ever worked with,” Witt said. “She rose through the HCC ranks, through talent, intelligence and old-fashioned hard work. Our campus is fortunate that she applied to lead our student services team. Any community college would have been lucky to find her.” Witt said he credits Stancil with recognizing that she could head the department after his retirement.

Serrano’s goals include allowing staff to be as innovative as possible, letting people “think outside the box” to find new ways of accomplishing goals and also promoting more staff and faculty interaction with students in their projects.

“I am open to suggestion and anxious to move forward,” she said.

Florida texting and driving ban goes into effect Oct. 1

Tampa News No Comments

Some claim victory to a dangerous practice, others complain the law is too weak. State officials have generally been quiet about the whole thing.


According to Distraction.gov, a U.S. Government website dedicated to educating the public about distracted driving, particularly cell phone use and texting while driving, at any given moment in America, 660,000 drivers are using a cell phone or an electronic device while hurtling down roads filled with traffic, bicycle riders, motorcyclists and pedestrians. Despite increasing public campaigns to stop texting and driving, that statistic has held steady since 2010.

On Oct. 1, Florida will become the 41st state to ban the practice of texting while driving. Some have labeled the ban as a first step, others have described the new law as weak and difficult to enforce, but for those who still text and drive, the fact remains that, at least while a vehicle is in motion, it will be illegal for a driver to send a text message, with some exceptions.

At this time, the state of Florida appears to be making little effort to educate the public about the new law, beyond plans to post warnings about texting and driving on overhead freeway message signs. Last week, overhead signs on Bay Area freeways were telling drivers that text messages can wait, don’t text and drive.

Most commuters on Tampa Bay area freeways have witnessed the effects of texting and driving but for a vivid image, simply talk to almost any motorcyclist. Driving a more vulnerable vehicle that requires intense concentration on the road and surrounding traffic, bikers are witnesses to the erratic behavior of drivers distracted not only by texting, but also by those simply talking on the phone while at the wheel. Swerving across lanes, speeding up and slowing down are a frequent sight on area highways, and are indicators of a driver that is not entirely focused on the task of maneuvering a large, heavy vehicle amongst other vehicles on the road.

According to Distraction.gov, sending or reading a text message while driving removes a driver’s focus on the road and surroundings for an average of 4.6 seconds, or roughly the equivalent of driving the length of a football field at 55 miles per hour entirely blind. Approximately twenty percent of teenage drivers and 10 percent of parents have admitted to having multi-text extended text conversations while driving. And that number consists merely of those who admit to doing it. Even reaching for a cell phone, let alone using one to dial a number or type a text message, increases the risk of getting into an accident by three times.

According to a privately run website, www.textinganddrivingsafely.com, using data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and other news sources, 23 percent of all auto collisions in 2011 involved at least one driver using a cell phone — that amounts to 1.3 million crashes.

According to state Senator Nancy Detert of Venice, the sponsor of the new law, approximately 11 teenagers die each day in the United States while texting and driving.

Governor Rick Scott signed Florida’s new texting ban into law last May, an act that drew praise from U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and other officials from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“Texting while driving is one of the most dangerous and irresponsible decisions a driver can make,” said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. “Florida is sending a strong message that it wants all drivers to be distraction free.”
Major cell phone providers have also been supportive of texting and driving laws.

Critics, however, have complained that the Florida law is too weak. The new law, taking effect on Oct. 1, will make texting while driving a secondary offense, meaning that drivers cannot be pulled over on that basis alone, but as part of another offense, such as weaving in traffic. Additionally, the ban allows drivers to text while stopped, whether in a traffic jam or at a stop sign. Drivers can also send a text message to report the commission of a crime. The fine is $30 for a first offense and law enforcement officers will not typically be allowed to confiscate the cell phone.

For the past several years, well prior to the new law, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has included a check-off box on accident reports if a deputy knows or suspects that distracted driving may have contributed to an accident or an infraction.

Last year, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles data suggested that more than 4,500 accidents were caused due to drivers distracted by the use of electronic communication devices.

For the text of the Florida Senate bill on the new law, visit http://tinyurl.com/observer-texting. For information on distracted driving from the NHTSA, visit www.distraction.gov.

$4.5 million Gibsonton wetlands restoration project almost complete

Tampa News No Comments


A massive project to restore wetlands in Gibsonston should be completed next month.

Almost a decade in the making, the program started last summer to restore mangroves at two plots along U.S. Highway 41.

“We should be finished on schedule next month,” said David Townsend, an assistant vice president at Mosaic.

Work on restoring 10 acres of mangroves and adding new oyster reefs, part one of the project, started in July at Giant’s Camp, a stone’s throw from the Alafia River Bridge on U.S. Highway 41. Part two, a similar project just north of the Giant’s Camp on U.S. Highway 41, began in the fall.

Mosaic, the world’s largest phosphate company, is footing the bill for the project as part of a compensation package the firm worked out with the federal government after a dike at its Riverview plant broke and contaminated local waters in 2004.

Heavy rains from Hurricane Frances that year broke the back of the company’s dike, sending 60,000 gallons of contaminated water into Archie Creek, killing vegetation and fish. The creek flows into Tampa Bay.

Mosaic has since spent $30 million to improve water-storage capacity at the Riverview fertilizer plant. “We can now handle up to 80 inches of rain,” Townsend said.

One of the largest agro-chemical companies in the world, with mines in Central Florida and North Carolina, Mosaic provides fertilizer to farmers in 40 countries. Most of the fertilizer used in the U.S. comes from Florida phosphate mines, much of it mined by Mosaic in Polk County.

The restoration project includes digging a 1,500-foot-long by 50-foot-wide channel through the mangrove habitat, breathing new life into the mangroves. The mangroves are currently cut off from any real tidal flow by a marina built in the 1950s and since abandoned.

Tidal flows are the lungs of mangroves; without it, the plants grow in on each other, eventually leading to a “mangrove heart attack” that kills the mangroves and turns them into mudflats. One acre of the property, clearly visible from overhead photos, has already turned into a mudflat.

“Mangroves are the heartbeat of Tampa Bay,” said Roy Lewis III, president of Lewis Environmental Services, the Riverview company that designed the restoration project. “It’s where juvenile fish hang out and mature and move into the bay. Tampa Bay has lost 40 percent of its mangroves over the last 100 years, and, as a direct result, commercial and recreational fishing have declined.”

The restoration project will bring new life to the mangroves, securing their future for hundreds of years, Lewis said.
“When it’s done, there will be four tides a day flushing through the property, and when the tide is ripping, you will see a significant amount of fish coming through,” Lewis said.

Reopening the mangroves to the natural flow of the tide will also involve dredging a 1,000-foot- long and 5-foot-deep channel in the existing waterway, bringing a healthy flow of water into the area. Engineers also built a bridge over the new channel.

While the tides will breathe new life into the mangroves, the new oyster beds, also part of the restoration project, will help clean that water before it enters the area.

Some 5,650 square feet of rock will be used in the project for the oyster beds.

After residents’ uproar, county seeks ways to delay Bloomingdale development

Tampa News No Comments


They wanted Riverview’s Winthrop Town Center but Brandon-area residents fear a new development in their backyard will end being just another anonymous suburban sprawl eyesore bringing traffic migraines and lowering property values.

Now County Commissioner Al Higginbotham is asking a developer to listen to resident’s concerns over the proposed development slated for Bloomingdale Avenue and Lithia Pinecrest Road.

Residents say they want the project stopped and while they are glad to talk to the developer, they have also retained their own attorney to research grounds for a lawsuit should the development proceed.

“If the developer declines to meet with the community and address our concerns there will be a lawsuit,” said Dan Grant, a member of Coordinated Active Neighborhoods Development Organization (CAN-DO). The group has mobilized hundreds of homeowners against the project.

Commissioners voted June 11 to ask the county attorney to research delaying approval for the project for up to six months. The vote came on the heels of a meeting the night before where Commissioner Higginbotham got an “earful” from more than 400 “furious” residents.

“I am not trying to shut down a project but it is a 180-window where they can review,” said Higginbotham who cautioned against “false hope” during the review.

The extra time would allow commissioners to make sure “we got this right, and there’s enough indication from the community, from (commissioners), including myself, did we get an accurate picture of what is going in on that site?” said Higginbotham.

Commissioner Ken Hagan said he was “fed up” with the developers.

“I believe this developer has operated in bad faith. I have never heard of a situation where a developer has refused to meet with the community and anything we can do to hold their feet to the fire I 100 percent support.”

“The 180-day delay would be a good thing. It gives us time to mobilize,” said Grant who expects to enlist more than 1,000 homeowners from Riverhills, Bloomingdale and Mason Oaks, to the campaign in coming weeks as the issue gains more publicity.

“Everywhere we go people ask the same thing: ‘What is the reason for this development?’ There is no good reason.”

The owner of the 43-acre plot, Redstone Properties, plans a 158,800-square-feet shopping center, three restaurants, a bank, 261 apartments and another 6,000-square-foot retail center on the land, according to papers submitted to the county earlier this year. Blueprints call for one entrance to the shopping center on Lithia Pinecrest with two on Bloomingdale, one of which, at Blowing Oak Street, would have a traffic light.

Residents say the plan would only worsen congestion in an area already notorious for bumper to bumper traffic with Bloomingdale Regional Library and Bloomingdale High School within a stone’s throw of the proposed development.

“This will reduce the home values and increase traffic around a high school that houses over 3,000 of the local children of which two thirds drive to school,” said Scott McFee. “There are two other elementary schools in adjacent neighborhoods and Bloomingdale is the major corridor for children going to Burns Middle School.”

Citing nearby supermarkets and existing commercial space in the area, Kim Hauser said the area also doesn’t need more high-density housing.

“There’s no way this part of Bloomingdale Avenue can handle a high density housing complex. Look at how bad traffic is on Bell Shoals and Lithia roads. We need a park, not another Walmart Super Store.”

The developer’s plan, which meets the requirements of the county’s Land Development Code, was approved Feb. 28, however, commissioners said that plan called for a development more akin to Riverview’s Winthrop Town Centre not a shopping center dominated by a Walmart. Winthrop has been praised for its mix of commercial and civic uses with the large anchor store, Publix, sharing frontage with smaller specialty stores.

While frustrated they were not being listened to in the past, Grant said residents now appear to have the ear of county commissioners.

“Listening is the first step. Now we need action.”

A recommendation from the county attorney on the legality of delaying county approval for the project is expected later.

Missing In America Homeless Veterans

Tampa News No Comments

There are 10-12 homeless camps in Riverview, Brandon area


Less than 200 feet from a bustling Brandon parking lot, homeless veterans camp in the woods. Surviving on half-eaten meals from dumpsters, sleeping in ramshackle tents, they exist in a twilight world, living on the edge of a society they served in uniform.

There are 10 to12 homeless camps in the Riverview and Brandon area, according to Thomas Brown, an outreach coordinator for Tampa Crossroads who visits three to four homeless camps daily. Tampa Crossroads offers treatment, housing, employment and other services for vets.

“There’s a perception out there that homeless veterans are all drug addicts and alcoholics but that is not the way it is,” Brown said. “I know people who were successful in law enforcement and health care who are now living on the streets. They are just like anyone else but they have fallen on hard times. They want to be successful but they have numerous obstacles in their way.”

More than 2,200 men, women and children will sleep in the woods, cars or abandoned buildings tonight, according to a Hillsborough County Homeless Coalition. Around 170 of those are veterans, according to the federally mandated homeless count which was conducted last month. The real number is higher, experts say.

“The count is always an estimate and always an undercount,” said Lesa Weikel, community relations manager for the Homeless Coalition.

The Coalition is required to do the count over 24 hours “so getting to every homeless person in Hillsborough County, an area of 1,100 square miles, is not easy especially when many of those people are living in the woods or abandoned buildings and many of whom, for whatever reason, don’t want to be found.”

The May 17 report also found 12,843 people precariously housed, a 23 percent increase over the 2011number. While not literally homeless, these individuals and households are at high risk of becoming homeless.

“The count data shows we, as a community, are moving in the right direction, but it is impossible to tell how much of the decrease represents real progress and how much is due to undercounting,” said Maria Barcus, CEO of Hillsborough’s Homeless Coalition. “The 2014 homeless count will provide a better understanding and assessment.”

The 2014 count will take place during the last 10 days of February with a shorter questionnaire.

Unlike previous homeless counts, the 2014 survey will also include those who are clearly homeless but refuse to participate in the survey.

Despite their wariness over the latest count, advocates do credit a number of federally funded programs with helping the homeless. The new programs, launched in 2011, helped more than 1,900 people who were either homeless or in danger of becoming homeless, according to the Homeless Coalition. Two of the new programs, the Veterans Homelessness Prevention Demonstration project and Supportive Services for Veteran Families, helped 347 veterans in the last two years, according to the Coalition

“I fell through the cracks and nobody saw it,” said Ray (we are not using his last name), a 20-year veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Facing the collapse of his second marriage and unemployment on his return from his first tour of duty, Ray signed up for a second tour in Iraq.

“I volunteered for my second deployment for one reason: to die,” Ray said.

Thomas Brown found Ray living in a Tampa homeless shelter and brought him into the Veteran’s Assistance Center at Tampa Crossroads.

“I was pretty close to bottom but he (Brown) actually listened. He was interested. I was one of the lucky ones,” said Ray who is now working and living in his own home. “I would be buried in some grave somewhere if it wasn’t for [Tampa Crossroads].”

For those who want help, Brown sets up interviews with case workers who assist the vet with benefits, housing and finding a job. Finding children living in a homeless camp is especially difficult, Brown said. “I try to help them more than anyone else. It doesn’t sit well with me.”

There are 62,619 long-term homeless veterans in the U.S., according to the U.S. Inter Agency Council on Homelessness. Some 12,240 Florida veterans live on the streets, according to a 2011 Florida Dept. of Children & Families report. Only California has more homeless veterans.

“The average person in Hillsborough County has no idea of the extent of veteran homelessness in our community,” said Justin Baker, a case manager at Tampa Crossroads, which also runs Athena House, the only residential housing complex for homeless female veterans in Florida. “We deal with veterans who have been self-sufficient all their lives and then a crisis happened where they need assistance and they just happen to fall on hard times.”

Those hard times can come as the result of a divorce, loss of a job, a death in the family or any number of reasons, Baker said. “There are no two cases that are alike as to why someone ends up homeless.”

Janet Spivey and her husband Curtis are among those trying to help. Members of the Patriot Guard (motorcycle) Riders who provide escorts for military funerals, the Spiveys met a disabled veteran earlier this year who told the couple about the plight of Florida’s homeless veterans.

Working with the Sumter County Veterans Service Office, which referred her to need-based organizations in Hillsborough, the Spiveys’ Bushnell church began collecting clothes and money for sleeping bags and tents.

“I wouldn’t take just anyone out to the homeless camps but Janet and Curtis are solid people who really want to help,” said Brown who took the couple to a homeless camp in Brandon.

In Spivey’s experience, the homeless take only what they need and are very grateful. She remembered a former soldier nicknamed “Caveman,” who had requested a sleeping bag. She brought him that and a jacket.

“I said, ‘Look at this nice jacket. It’s just your size.’ And the tears just rolled down his face.”

Brown said the private donations give the veterans a boost, showing them someone cares. “It makes a huge difference in their morale if nothing else.”

The Spiveys also take Bibles.

“I don’t push them on the people, but they’re out there, and if they can read it, it gives them a little bit of hope.”

Tackling homelessness among veterans is not an issue that can be solved by Tampa Crossroads or the Homeless Coalition, said Tampa Crossroads CEO Sara Romeo, a Brandon native.

“This is a problem that has to be solved by our entire community. We need landlords to step up. We are not asking for free apartments, there is funding available,” said Romeo, who works closely with the VA and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide services to veterans.

“We need employers to step up (and employ formerly homeless veterans). We need companies like TECO to step up and work with us because sometimes it’s not possible for a family to pay a $400 deposit to have their electric turned on right away.

“There are a lot of pieces in this puzzle. We can’t just put a person in a house and say good luck. We need to be able to make sure they can afford the rent and are working. These are people who just want a hand up, not a hand out.”

Help for veterans and their families

Supportive Services for Veteran Families
This program, funded by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) aims to improve very low-income Veteran families’ housing stability. SSVF was awarded to the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County in partnership with Tampa Crossroads and Bay Area Legal Service. For more information and to be screened for the SSVF program, contact Tampa Crossroads Veterans Assistance Center, 4203 N. Nebraska Ave., Tampa, FL 33603, (813) 238-8557 x300.

Veterans Homelessness Prevention Demonstration Project
The Veterans Homelessness Prevention Demonstration Project (VHPD) is a new initiative by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA), and the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to provide assistance to veterans at-risk of becoming homeless or newly homeless. Funding for the assistance program is provided by HUD. For more information and to see if you are eligible contact one of the following: VHPD Coordinator, (813) 979-3563; Vet Center Homeless Outreach Specialist, (813) 228-2621 or the VA National Call Center for Homeless Veterans, 1-877-4AID-VET (1-877-424-3838) – available 24/7.

How you can help

There are many ways the community can help house chronically homeless men and women, according to the Hillsborough County Homeless Coalition.

Developers and owners of large housing properties could donate an apartment or two to provide housing to someone.

Faith and service groups could choose to do a fundraiser to cover housing expenses for a person for a year, or put together ‘move-in kits’ with cleaning supplies, towels and linens, pots and pans.

For more information call the Hillsborough County Homeless Coalition at (813) 223-6115 or email info@homelessofhc.org.

Tampa Crossroads, a nonprofit organization that helps veterans who are homeless, is currently looking for bicycles.

“We have a number of clients who live a mile or more from their place of work who need bikes to get back and forth,” said Sara Romeo, Tampa Crossroads’ CEO. The group helped more than 1,000 veterans and their families last year.

The group also accepts anything that will help ease the move of veterans transitioning to housing, like pots and pans, shower supplies and towels and linens.

Employers looking to hire veterans and landlords with available apartments — “We are not looking for free apartments, rents are paid,” Romeo said — are also invited to contact Tampa Crossroads through the group’s website or by calling (813) 238-8557 Ext. 300.

Homeless vets by the numbers

13% of the homeless adult population are veterans
20% of the male homeless population are veterans
68% reside in principal cities
32% reside in suburban/rural areas
51% of individual homeless veterans have disabilities
50% have serious mental illness
70% have substance abuse problems
51% are white males, compared to 38% of non-veterans
50% are age 51 or older, compared to 19% non-veterans

Source: National Coalition for Homeless Veterans

New and expanding South County businesses will soon get tax breaks

Tampa News No Comments


Businesses in three areas of South County will find themselves in a better tax position by the end of this month.

County Commissioners voted in December to ask the State of Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity Office to add portions of Gibsonton, Riverview and Palm River to the list of State Enterprise Zones, and the State has already told the county to expect approval by the end of the month.

This means that new or expanding businesses in those areas will be eligible for State tax credits in hopes of boosting the local economies.

The areas were chosen because they meet the state’s “misery index” statistics, with poverty rates of more than 20 percent, and have more than 30 percent of the employees from those businesses living within that area as well. To be considered, the area must also have an unemployment rate of more than 8.9 percent and be in what the state calls “general distress.”

General distress, according to Lynn Schultz, business consultant for the county’s Economic Development Department, means that the area includes problems like poor drainage, high crime, abandoned buildings, and deteriorated roads.

At this time, Hillsborough County has only 3.1 miles of Enterprise Zones, which were created to increase business, which then improves the economy within the depressed areas. This figure does not include the City of Tampa, which is counted separately.

Once approved by the State, Hillsborough County will have 15.6 square miles where new — and expanding businesses — get tax credits on a State level.

“The State has already told us to expect the letter of approval by the end of January,” Schultz said.

The City of Tampa has 19 square miles of Enterprise Zone land, but that is not counted with the county, which according to State charts (even including Tampa) has the lowest number of square miles in Florida in these special zones.

Miami/Dade County currently tops the list with almost 52 square miles of Enterprise Zones.

Prior to the Commissioners’ vote in December, five public meetings were conducted in the potential zone areas to provide information on the expansion efforts as well as the benefits to their communities.

“Expanding the existing Enterprise Zone is a true benefit to our residents and business owners located within the designated areas,” Schultz said. “They will have the opportunity to utilize much-needed incentives to help in the growth of their businesses as well as employ residents located in these communities.”

Once in the zone, new and expanding businesses there will be eligible for a job tax credit of 20 percent on wages paid to workers who live in the zone and 30 percent if more than 20 percent of its employees live within the zone; building materials will be eligible for up to $5,000 in the form of a sales tax refund, or up to $10,000 if 20 percent if more of its employees live within the zone.

There will also be a business equipment sales tax refund as well as a property tax credit against the Florida corporate income tax. This credit will be equal to the property tax the new or expanding business pays the county up to $50,000 a year.

Commissioner Sandra Murman, who represents District IV, which includes South County, presented the original request to the Department of Economic Development to consider the addition of the areas to the Enterprise Zones.

Clyde Butcher: a passionate man capturing the Florida of our dreams

Tampa News No Comments


People packed into the intimate, maze-like studio creating a certain unusually polite but chaotic atmosphere, contrasting with the beauty and tranquility of the incomparable art displayed on the walls. People lined up to see the bearded man they admired, yet while waiting their turn, remained a respectful distance from him, despite that his very human and personal nature did not seem to demand it.

Many people had questions and wanted photographs of themselves with the man and Jackie smiled and chatted with each, holding cameras and recording moments and taking it all in stride. If the waves of people stressed her out, she gave no indication of that. But then for a woman who spent her childhood growing up on a sailboat with her parents, you wouldn’t expect that such things would impact her. Certainly waves, whether those of people or water, don’t seem to bother Jackie Butcher Obendorf, the daughter of Clyde Butcher.

On Saturday, Clyde Butcher, Florida’s most famous photographer and a man widely praised for his dedication in working to save the ever-dwindling wild places in a state like no other, opened the doors to his Venice studio for a book signing, a chance to chat and, perhaps most unique of all, an offer to tour his darkroom — the place where chemicals meet artistry to create images of incredible beauty that range in size from 8×10 inch prints to staggering 5 foot by 8 foot paper tapestries of whites, blacks, grays and astonishing detail.

His images are the Florida we see in our mind’s eye and in our dreams. They record moments of beauty, peace, and tranquility found in the Everglades and on seemingly untouched beaches. Butcher doesn’t just capture the beauty of Florida, he first gets into it, often wading chest deep into swamps and packing his large format cameras into places that few people are willing to go. And then, after all of that effort, he depends upon his skill and his eye because his cameras don’t have little LCDs to instantly reveal what he captured. He finds out only later, once the magic of the chemicals reveal the images in his expansive darkroom.

Clyde and Niki Butcher have been married for 50 years. He was trained as an architect, even having a hand in the design of San Francisco’s iconic TransAmerica Tower, but was inspired by famed photographer Ansel Adams. He began down the path of a photographer, selling his images at art and street fairs. Before long, he realized that he could earn a better living as a photographer than as an architect.

Like his unique images that are today burned from a photographic enlarger the size of a mid-sized car, Butcher was not one to think small. In the early 1970s, as a photographer he built a business selling his work as home decor to large department store chains. The business grew, as did the stress of running it. He sold the business and built a sailboat, eventually moving it and his young family from California to Florida.

Clyde and Niki lost their 17-year-old son to a drunk driver in 1986 and Clyde retreated into the wild places for solace. It was there he found a way to restore his soul. It was there that he truly found a way to share what he saw and his passion with others through his photographs.

“Photographing landscape has been my love for 45 years,” Butcher recently posted to his Facebook page. “I have been fortunate to see so much beauty in my life. I’d like future photographers to have that joy too. In order for that to happen, we need to pay attention to the health of our environment. The beauty and peace it provides us can not be measured in dollars.”

His list of awards and accolades runs long, illustrating his deep commitment to the environment and a sincere appreciation for the beauty he captures. All of that comes through in his images, of course. He has completed six Public Broadcasting programs on Florida’s environment; three of them award-winning documentaries. He has won awards from the State of Florida to the Sierra Club and most everything in between, including recognition from state and national leaders. He was asked by the United Nations to photograph mountains in Cuba. He has traveled America and has recorded priceless moments of places threatened yet affixed in the American psyche. We are a nation of people defined by our nation’s resources and beauty. And that beauty exists in a Florida swamp, a field in Iowa or in the mountains of the west. It is everywhere, it is us and it is ours. Hopefully forever.

“I use my photographs as tools for conservation,” Butcher said.

Jackie smiled, answered endless questions and snapped photos. People lined up with books, calendars, even postcards, waiting for a signature and the chance to spend a few moments chatting with an admirable man. People posed, chatted and shook his hand. Some may have asked about the Swamp Walks offered by his studio located in the Everglades. Although Butcher doesn’t usually lead the walks anymore, he knows the swamp like few others. And that intimate knowledge, whether or not he is along, is shared among those who venture off into the wilderness, experiencing nature while immersed in it. Safely, of course, but immersed nonetheless.

“You’ll get wet,” he would likely tell them.

It’s not easy restoring a soul through the windshield of a car passing by on a highway. To do it, to really do it, you have to wade into the waters, sometimes chest deep, perhaps a baptismal for the soul. The value of what you return with cannot be measured. And sometimes, with talent and passion, mere moments can be captured forever. For Clyde Butcher it is not a digital, virtual process, it is letting it into your heart and then pouring it back out with chemicals and artistry emerging into something incomparable, something wonderful: a beautiful, fleeting moment captured forever.

Clyde Butcher’s Venice gallery is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. It is located at 237 Warfield Avenue, an easy drive from anywhere in South Hillsborough.

His Big Cypress Gallery is located in Ochopee on U.S. Highway 41 near mile marker 54.5 in the Everglades.

Butcher will be in his Big Cypress Gallery on Nov. 29 and 30 to meet and greet visitors and to exhibit new photographs. He will also personalize any holiday purchases. His 5×8 foot images can run into the thousands of dollars (and with good reason) but he also offers a unique treasure of books and smaller prints, created with no less passion or attention to detail.

In addition, staff members will also be offering swamp walks on both days at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.

For information, call 239-695-2428 (Everglades), 941-486-0811 (Venice), or email info@clydebutcher.com. His website is located at www.clydebutcher.com.

Without a word, Amazon making huge waves in South Hillsborough

Tampa News No Comments

The world’s largest Internet retailer is expected to create 1,000 jobs in a new fulfillment center slated for Ruskin.


The world’s largest Internet retailer, Amazon.com, is making huge waves in Ruskin and throughout the Tampa Bay area without saying a word.

According to Hillsborough County records, a company named RELP Tampa, LLC, a Delaware corporation with the same mailing address as USAA Real Estate Company, purchased 80 acres of mixed use, commercial property in Ruskin from South Shore Corporate Park, LLC, a company affiliated with property developer Ryan Cos. U.S., Inc. of Minneapolis late last week for $14.6 million. The property is located near I-75 in the vicinity of 30th Street NE between State Road 674 and 19th Avenue NE. The Hillsborough Community College Ruskin campus is also located in the immediate area.

The Tampa Bay Business Journal reported last month that USAA Real Estate Company has developed seven Amazon distribution centers around the country over the past two years.

Amazon has not confirmed or denied the 80-acre purchase in Ruskin is related to a proposed distribution center, which the company refers to as fulfillment centers. The company has not issued a public statement on the matter since earlier this summer after coming to an agreement with Governor Rick Scott to invest $300 million and bring at least 3,000 jobs to the state starting in 2014.

Requests for comment by The Current went largely unanswered with one Amazon media representative replying that the request hand been “passed along to the right team” within the company.

The fulfillment center is expected to be in excess of one million square feet and employ 1,000 people. Also earlier this summer, the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners voted to waive half of Amazon’s property tax bill for the first seven years and approved paying $1.1 million in incentives for the company to include at least 375 “high paying jobs”, offering salaries in excess of $47,500.

“The South Shore area has been a diamond in the rough for a long time,” said Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman. “Someone has finally found the treasure here in Amazon’s decision to locate its distribution center in Ruskin. It’s going to mean economic development and more jobs for an area that so desperately needed a jump-start after the recession. It’s a perfect fit, and it couldn’t happen in a better place than South County.”

With Amazon expected to begin business operations in Florida in any of several possible sites around the state in 2014, residents will, at some as of yet undetermined point, begin paying Florida sales tax on Amazon purchases, which are currently not subject to sales tax. That issue, however, may soon be rendered moot as Congress inches ever closer to an Internet sales tax, requiring all but the smallest Internet merchants to collect state and local taxes. On the positive side for Amazon customers, however, is the possibility of same-day service on Amazon orders, a service that the company offers in eleven other cities around the country. Subscribers to Amazon Prime, a $79 annual membership plan, pay as little as $3.99 per item for same day delivery in those markets.

Amazon, founded in 1994 by Jeff Bezos in a Seattle garage, went online in 1995. Today the company operates 33 fulfillment centers in the United States with at least two more expected to go online in the coming months. Amazon has nearly 40 other fulfillment centers around the world. The company employs approximately 100,000 full and part-time employees, not including seasonal employees, and reported $61.1 billion in 2012 revenues.

A Girl A Guitar A Rising Star

Tampa News No Comments

Photo gallery of Morgan Bernard’s Orpheum performance below….


The first thing you notice about Morgan Bernard is not the studded boots, it’s not that she’s an adorably cute young woman, it’s not the driving rock ’n roll rhythm laid down by her band just before she takes the stage, it’s not even her boundless talent. What you’ll first notice about Bernard happens before she even straps on her electric guitar and walks up to her center stage microphone. What you’ll notice, what everyone immediately noticed during her CD release party at the Orpheum in Ybor City on Friday night, was her presence. In the seconds it took to walk across the stage, grab her guitar and start singing, she made her presence known. Morgan Bernard has “It”; the mysterious, inexplicable, yet entirely recognizable feature of someone who is going to go places few people will reach. Bernard, a girl from Gibsonton, is destined to be a star.

Bernard and her band rocked the Orpheum on Friday night as part of a performance for the release of her new CD entitled “Give It All.” By Sunday, she was rocking out in a theater in Nashville, Tennessee. Her presence, her talent, her music are taking her places and that is not mere happenstance. She decided at the age of 10 what she wanted to do. Now, at only 14, it is already coming to fruition. At an age when many of her peers still struggle to avoid putting their clothes on inside out, Bernard is fronting a rock band. Only 14 years old and she looks equally at home with her guitar on stage as she does running around laughing, pre-show, with her friends and Nathalie, her band’s young drummer — doing all the things teenage girls do. But when she gets on stage, the teenage girl becomes a serious musician. She literally takes the stage and owns it.

Bernard is no Mouseketeer. She is a rock ’n roller through and through. But unlike the tragic handful of notable young people who went from wearing mouse ears to stardom to rehab, Morgan Bernard is a straight A high school student who appears to have avoided self-absorption and values her friends and family as much or more as she values her growing stardom. She occasionally misses school for shows or interviews, but she is smart and is motivated to succeed in everything she does.

“My motto for anyone trying to get to a goal, whether it is a young person trying to be a musician or anything else, just give it all and never give up,” Bernard said.

That motto became the title of her first album.

Bernard is also giving it all for a good cause. She has joined an anti-bullying effort and one song, entitled “Shame,” on her new CD, along with a music video, is dedicated to that cause. It’s no small effort. Increasingly, bullying is reaching tragic new lows for victimized young people. It is even claiming lives.

“The song started out as just one person getting bullied and finding her confidence to stand up for herself,” Bernard said. “But the song gained more meaning when my actual friends told me their own stories about bullying and I realized it was a bigger problem than I thought. Now I’m trying to work to get to the solution to this problem.”

Her talents range across multiple instruments, with her voice and guitar-playing headlining her act. Her musical inspirations range from AC/DC to Lady Gaga and Elvis, a wide range of musical styles that are reflected in her wide-ranging abilities. She also acts and has appeared as an extra on the locally produced, award-winning family television series, Dry Creek.

Her Facebook page lists her as a self-employed entertainer. Her musician page, already with thousands of fans, is rapidly growing. Brimming with talent and possessing the presence of a star, there is little doubt Bernard will go around and to the very top of the world. But there is also little doubt that this young girl from Gibsonton will never forget where her home is. In a mere 14 years of life, Morgan Bernard has not only figured out what she wanted to do, she is already making it happen — by giving it her all.

For more information, visit her website at www.morgan-bernard.com or her Facebook page at www.facebook.com/MorganBernard.Singer. She is also on the musician’s website, ReverbNation at www.reverbnation.com/morganbernard and on YouTube at www.youtube.com/user/morgannmegan.

To find out more or to contribute to her anti-bullying effort, visit www.bullyingisugly.com.

120712 Morgan Bernard – Images by Mitch Traphagen

Borrow Pit wetland restoration project to start in fall

Tampa News No Comments


The Borrow Pit Project, part two of the $4.5-million wetlands restoration project due to begin next month in Gibsonton, is slated to begin in October this year.

The five-acre property is east of U.S. Highway 41, beside the CSX railroad tracks and the Delaney Canal.

Dirt from the property was “borrowed” early in the last century.

“They used it either for the railroad tracks or for the highway, we are not sure which one,” said Roy Lewis III, president of Lewis Environmental Services. The Riverview company, has been working with Mosaic on the Borrow Pit and Giant’s Camp restoration projects for eight years, ever since federal officials mandated the phosphate company work on some form of environmental compensation after polluted water spilled from its plant in 2004.

“In both projects we are restoring hydrology (the circulation of water) to the area and creating fish and mangrove habitats,” said Laura Flynn, an engineer with Lewis Environmental.

The project will leave the property with a tidal creek and pond.

Restoring a natural flow of water to the area will allow nature to work, said Lewis.

“We are not in the business of planting mangroves,” Lewis said. “We are letting Mother Nature do her own restoration work here.”

Having seen the process work successfully in other projects around the world, Lewis is confident it will work at the Borrow Pit.

“It’s a proven methodology,” he said.

The property, which has been altered by ditching, excavation and dumping over the years, is currently dominated by Brazilian Peppers. One of most aggressive and wide-spread of the invasive non-indigenous exotic pest plants in Florida, the Brazilian Pepper tree produces a dense canopy that shades out all other plants and provides a very poor habitat for native species.

“This species invades aquatic as well as terrestrial habitats, greatly reducing the quality of native biotic communities in the state,” according to the University of Florida’s Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants.

Step one at the Borrow Pit will be removing the Brazilian Peppers, something Mosaic has been doing in the area for several years. Once those are removed, and a tidal flow restored, the mangroves will have a chance to flourish.

In addition, the project will also include:
• Excavating a tidal creek connecting to the Delaney Creek Pop-Off Canal which borders the property to the north
• Creating a 1-acre shallow tidal pond
• Grading the wetland area to support natural mangrove colonization

Work on the borrow pit project is expected to conclude by June, 2014.