Tourism is up for the first half of 2014, according to a report from Research Data Services, presented by President and CEO Walter Klages to the Pinellas County Tourist Development Council Aug. 20.
The report shows that 589,300 visitors stayed overnight during the month of June - up from 562,800 in 2013. The economic impact was more than $720.5 million, an 8 percent increase.
Occupancy at the county’s lodging accommodations was 80.4 percent in June compared to 76.6 percent in 2013. The average daily rate was $123.15 up from $114.87 last year. Revenue per room was $99.01 compared to $87.99 in 2013.
BELLEAIR - A private investigator’s report into the alleged wrongdoings by Belleair Police Chief Tom Edwards is expected to be completed shortly after Labor Day. Town Manager Micah Maxwell said he had hoped the report would have been in by now but understood why it is taking longer than expected.
“It is not necessarily not on time,” he said. “As with most inquiries there are people to talk to you didn’t realize were there. The more you investigate the more you discover.”
Belleair Police Detective James Howard, the Department’s union representative wrote a letter to Maxwell in July accusing the chief of “actions which I had witnessed and felt were unprofessional, unethical and borderline illegal.”
The letter followed a meeting between Howard and Maxwell over a year ago on July 25, 2013 where Howard outlined his concerns about Edwards’ behavior. In the letter Howard said he wasn’t satisfied with Maxwell’s actions since that time.
“It’s been a year since the initial complaints were made against the Chief of Police and nothing has been done,” he wrote. “The Chief of Police is now empowered to continue with his own agenda knowing there are no consequences.”
LARGO - This year was the first time Mayor-elect Woody Brown ran uncontested in his bid for Largo office since deciding to join the commission in 2007.
It also marks Commissioner-elect John Carroll’s first bid for office, but he’s no stranger to leadership in Largo, having retired from the Largo Police Department as police chief after 33 years of service with the department.
Both have claimed their seats without appearing on the ballot after no other candidates stepped up to run against them before the qualifying period ended Aug. 15. Three other seats on the Largo Commission are up for election in November. But before those campaigns kick off in earnest, the Largo Leader sat with Brown and Carroll to talk about their priorities, Largo’s future and what it means to be a leader.
Out of respect for Florida’s open government laws, the two were interviewed separately at Proino’s Breakfast Club Aug. 25.
Building a better Largo
To start, Brown said the city had to make it easier for private investors to fix up abandoned properties by establishing a program for forgiving code enforcement liens. Currently, potential buyers will ask the code enforcement board to reduce the penalties against a home before finalizing the sale, and the board must trust on faith that the new owners will follow through on bringing the home into compliance with the city’s standards.
CLEARWATER - Officials of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium unveiled plans Aug. 22 for a new downtown facility. Now the race is on to raise the money to pay for it.
At a news conference at the current facility, board member Frank Hibbard explained that $68 million is the total bill for the new facility, and $30 million of that must be in hand before any ground breaking can take place.
Originally, when the plans for the new aquarium were announced, the price tag was set at $130 million dollars. That was soon re-estimated downward to $100 million, and now the final $68 million.
“We realized we had to get the price down,” Hibbard said. “Among the ways we did that was to put 50,000 square feet of display space outside, not under the roof, and to eliminate the dolphin stadium.”
In fact, the new facility, which will be built on the site of the present Clearwater City Hall, will lean more on education rather than entertainment.
CEO David Yates stressed that the mission of the aquarium is not to be entertainment-centric.
“Our mission is the three R’s,” he said. “Rescue, Rehabilitation and Release. With that in mind, the new facility will be unique, like nothing that exists anywhere in the world.”
ST. PETERSBURG - Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and St. Petersburg College have formed a partnership to provide a Universal Pass to provide free bus rides to students and staff.
PSTA and SPC announced the news at a press conference Aug. 21 at SPC’s Gibbs campus in St. Petersburg.
According to Franco Ripple with Kevin Cate Communications, SPC is paying $75,000 to PSTA for a one-year contract. In exchange, more than 32,000 students and staff will be able to ride free on any of PSTA’s 200 buses on 40 routes.
Students, faculty and other employees can get the free rides by showing their SPC ID cards when boarding the bus.
“We couldn’t be happier to partner with St. Petersburg College to provide their students and faculty with the transit options they needed,” said PSTA Board member and Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long in a press release. “This has been a long time coming, and SPC’s students and faculty now have a new way to get to class, home, work and all around Pinellas County, at no cost to them. It’s great for our students, it’s great for our teachers and it will only get better with the improvements under Greenlight Pinellas.”
TARPON SPRINGS - After sitting empty and deserted for years, the church at 160 Read St. will soon have a new purpose: a family home.
Richard Boeckl bought the property in 1973 after watching the For Sale sign sit unchanged next to his family’s home for four years. But it wasn’t the 15,500-sqaure-foot church he was interested in; he wanted the old Sunday School and nursery behind the church. He thought he could turn it into an apartment complex.
He tented for termites, put on a new roof and painted the buildings twice. Eventually, he began renting out the church for $135 a month. But in 1993, the no name storm swept through Tarpon Springs and filled the church with water 3 feet deep. The roof was damaged again. And repairs were going to be expensive.
“I had three children in college at that time,” said Boeckl, a retired teacher from Sunset Hills Elementary School. “I could either educate my kids or fix the building.”
So he kept paying for tuition and the church and nursery began to slip, once again, into disrepair.
It wasn’t until 2011, when the city of Tarpon Springs began fining Boeckl for code violations, that new plans began to form. Make a move or continue paying fines.
MADEIRA BEACH - Plans were unveiled last week at city hall for a 3,000-foot memory park that will be added to the city’s new $10 million municipal complex.
ROC Park, which stands for Remember Our Children, is the concept of Bill Karns of Indian Shores. Plans call for a linear park along Boca Ciega Bay that will feature a waterfall, splash pad and a butterfly reflection garden connected by a brick paver walkway with plenty of benches along the way.
“This is not a sad or solemn park,” said Karns, who lost a 26-year-old son 18 months ago. “It’s a park to celebrate the lives of the children that we’ve lost.”
Madeira Beach City Manager Shane Crawford concurred.
“This is not going to be a morbid, cemetery type of environment,” Crawford said. “It’s going to be a happy place to come and remember.”
The park, designed by Wannemacher Jensen Architects, is expected to break ground in mid-September and be complete by mid-January in conjunction with the opening of the city’s Municipal Center.
The project has come to fruition in about three months.
“The community has really gotten behind this,” said Karns, who has business interests in Treasure Island and St. Petersburg. “I’ve already raised $500,000 and our goal is $700,000. Once it’s complete, it will help thousands of families and give them a place to memorialize the loss of a child.”
SEMINOLE - More than a dozen political, business and civic leaders spoke out at the Aug. 12 City Council meeting to encourage City Manager Frank Edmunds to delay his retirement.
Overwhelmed by the support, Edmunds agreed to stay in his position an additional eight months and retire Sept. 1, 2015. At the June 10 City Council meeting, he announced that he’d retire Jan. 16, 2015 to spend more time with his family and with a grandson on the way.
At the Aug. 12 meeting, the City Council voted 6-0 to change Edmunds’ vacation benefits so that he would receive one week of vacation per month until his retirement. The Council also agreed to initiate recruitment for a new city manager by April 1, 2015.
Councilor Patricia Plantamura, who has been critical of Edmunds, was absent from the meeting.
“This has been pretty difficult to sit through, but it is a compliment for a city manager to have the support of a community as has been demonstrated through this evening,” Edmunds said.
The City Council hopes that Edmunds will help the city get the Seminole Mall project off the ground and also assist with the search for his replacement.
“You’re A+. You’ve run this city beautifully and Seminole is what it is today because of you,” said Mayor Leslie Waters. “It makes my heart feel so good to see the leadership of this community come out today on your behalf.”
CLEARWATER - Norman Runkles was honored on Aug. 12 as the first recipient of the Doug Carey School Crossing Guard of the Year Award in a ceremony at the Clearwater Police Headquarters.
Runkles is one of the Clearwater Police Department employees responsible for training the crossing guards and will return to the streets on Monday, Aug. 18 when school starts.
Carey was a crossing guard who was killed while on duty May 20 at the intersection of Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and Belcher Road. He was also a former Clearwater police officer. His widow, Jean, was in attendance at the award ceremony.
INDIAN ROCKS BEACH - The owners of P.J.’s Oyster Bar are blending the legacy of their old location into the look of their new restaurant at 415 Second St. in Indian Rocks Beach.
The artists are about 90 percent done with their painting on the exterior of the restaurant, which is now open. Renovations began about a year ago, said co-owner Steve Palmer.
“We are doing a tribute to the old P.J.’s building. Kind of paying homage to the 30 years over there.” Palmer said.
The Vitale Brothers of St. Petersburg, who have painted numerous signs and murals on businesses, are re-creating a picture of P.J.’s former building and parking lot, which was at 500 First St.
“When you look at this building, it’s going to look like the old P.J.’s,” Palmer said.
The Palmers, Steve and Rebecca, decided to move their restaurant to the building across the street to accommodate their customers.
“To be honest, we had so many requests for people to sit outside, listen to music and have dinner outside - we didn’t have any place to offer that over there,” he said. “We got so big, too many people. We needed a bigger place,” said Palmer.
DUNEDIN - After talking about it for several years, the Dunedin City Commission Aug. 21 unanimously approved the final reading of an ordinance to rewrite the solid waste component of the Dunedin city code, which also changes trash pickup to once a week, effective Jan. 5.
It is estimated that going to one day a week for residential trash pickup will save the city $700,000 in the first year alone, according to a memo to the commission from City Manager Rob DiSpirito.
Getting rid of the garbage is a challenge, especially in Florida’s most densely populated county.
Pinellas County residents and visitors generate about 1.3 million tons of municipal solid waste - garbage - every year. That’s a lot for a county with only one landfill.
But, effective management of the waste stream coupled with continuing advances in technology, a dose of creativity and assistance from the public may extend the life of that landfill a little bit longer.
TREASURE ISLAND - When the phone calls started coming in from places like California and New Hampshire, Diane and Monty Null, owners of the Super Scoop ice cream shop in Treasure Island, were caught off guard.
Much to their amazement, their shop, located at 11025 Gulf Blvd., had been selected as the No. 3 ice cream shop in the country, according to a poll of customers on the travel website TripAdvisor.