Her mother’s recipes live on

Island Flavors and ‘Tings
Kamryn Elliott | USFSP
Island Flavors and ‘Tings is best known for its mango bread.

USFSP Student Reporter

GULFPORT – Helena Josephs had worked in three different fields in Jamaica and the United States when – by chance – she wound up in the restaurant and catering business.

For 18 years, she has owned and cooked at Island Flavors and ’Tings, a Jamaican restaurant and market at 1411 49th St. S that is best known for its mango bread.

But it took three career changes and a big move to get there.
Josephs, 63, grew up in Mandeville, Jamaica, and graduated from the University of the West Indies with a mass communications degree specializing in film.

She began a career in TV and film production, then switched to advertising. She was on her way to New York on a business trip when she decided to come to America to work in a new field – real estate.

“I had stopped to see my family in Tampa, and during this visit someone had offered me a job in real estate,” said Josephs.

The exchange rate in Jamaica was very low, she said, and she decided she wanted change and more money.

So Josephs moved to Florida in 1988 to start a career in real estate.

Seven years later, a friend offered to sell his space in a commercial building.

“My friend previously owned the space where my restaurant is, and he decided he wanted to go back to Jamaica. So, he offered to sell it to me and that’s how I started,” said Josephs.

The space sat empty for two years while Josephs continued to work in real estate. Then she finally left the field and started her next career as a business owner and chef.

Initially, it was an island Jamaican grocery store with a small takeout section in the back. Then Josephs transformed it into the restaurant it is now.

Josephs learned how to cook from her mother and uses some of those recipes for her restaurant and catering business. The best-known recipe is her mango bread.

“Cooking just found me. I never went into it and thank god I didn’t have to go to school to be where I’m at, but if I had the chance, I would love to take (cooking) courses,” said Josephs.

She has three chefs – including herself – all of them women, running the restaurant. One works full time and has been with her for 12 years; the other works part time.

“Working with Helena is an enjoyment; I have a good staff and my boss is great,” said Donna Coleman, the full-time chef. “I have been working here since 2007 and I’m glad I came to her.”

There are no greeters or staff to seat customers because the restaurant is set up as a food line. Customers grab what they want and sit down.

Josephs’ restaurant cooks to sell out because the menu is made with fresh ingredients daily. This way of cooking means the closing hours to vary.

“We are a very casual restaurant because we try to make it a Jamaican experience,” said Josephs.

After finding the perfect team for her restaurant, Josephs said, her passion shifted to her catering business, which has been growing the past three years.

The catering company is separate and completely different than Island Flavors and ’Tings. But she still offers Jamaican cuisine if customers choose that theme.

“A lot of people weren’t contacting me about catering because they thought I could only do Jamaican cuisine. So, I decided to build this company that also offers traditional catering to show I can do different types of cuisine,” said Josephs.

Through her years of experience in the culinary world she’s found a balance between running her restaurant and growing her catering business.

“When people tell me they’re going to open a restaurant, I tell them make sure to have that passion because when you find it the whole idea will flow,” said Josephs.

Find out more about the restaurant and catering business at https://islandflavorsandtings.vpweb.com and https://the-caterer.com.

It serves authentic food, Italian style

Pia's Trattoria
Ashley Campbell | USFSP
Pia’s Trattoria opened in 2005.

USFSP Student Reporter

GULFPORT – In a city known for fine dining, Mayor Sam Henderson can eat at lots of good restaurants.

His favorite? Pia’s Trattoria, an Italian place at 3054 Beach Blvd. S.

“Fresh tomato bruschetta – it’s just an appetizer, but it’s my favorite one,” said Henderson when asked to name his favorite dish.

Pia’s Trattoria – or Pia’s “eating house” in Italian – has accommodated diners like Henderson since it opened in 2005.

After working in Venezuela as a chef for three years, Pia-Maria Goff, the owner of Pia’s Trattoria, met her husband. They moved to Italy, where she grew up, then to Germany, and then finally to Florida.

Although they planned to move to Sarasota, they fell in love with Gulfport and Pia’s opened shortly afterward.

Goff said she had become homesick for authentic Italian food and decided to open her own restaurant. At first, it was just her, a prep cook, a few tables and a small kitchen.

But the idea of the restaurant was simple: Serve authentic Italian food in an old Italian style.

Goff’s Italian recipes are derived from her family back in Pozzuoli, a metropolitan city near Naples, she said.

“Whoever enters this door is like a friend of mine,” she said.

Pia’s expanded about five years after opening, but its formula has never changed, said Goff.

They never use anything processed, frozen or already done. They make everything in house and always use fresh ingredients, including herbs they grow themselves, she said.

“We still to this day will not take any shortcuts,” said Goff.

Goff tailors her food to the needs of her customers, she said. While the original family recipes never vary, one section of the menu changes biweekly.

An entrée that Mayor Henderson likes is mutton, a special he once tried.

“Kind of a peasant dish, but it’s fantastic,” he said.

Goff noticed customers requesting vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free items, so she adjusted the menu to fit those needs and keep the customers happy.

She changes this portion of the menu, to keep the food interesting and take advantage of fresh, seasonal ingredients, Goff said.

“I’ve never had anything here I didn’t like,” said Cissy Poirier, a Gulfport resident and frequent diner.

Poirier ticked off menu items she loved, including the lasagna, which Goff said is the most popular menu item. She likes the restaurant for the ambience, but mostly the great food.

On TripAdvisor, the popular travel and restaurant website, Pia’s has drawn plenty of positive reviews. Of the 715 diners who commented, 601 rated the restaurant “excellent” or “very good.”

“A hidden gem,” said one satisfied diner. “Rustic yet hip,” said another, and “a great find,” said a third.

Among the less flattering assessments was this: “No AC and it’s like eating in a basement.”

Pia’s has a history of violations in state restaurant inspections.

Five times since 2013, it has been slapped with warnings that required follow-up inspections, and twice – in August 2018 and December 2013 – it was temporarily closed and fined $400.

In the 2018 inspection, the state found rodent droppings in several places and “potentially hazardous” temperature controls for food.

According to the state’s latest health inspection report on Sept. 18, 2019, Pia’s met state inspection standards.

Peace, love and blueberries

Blueberry Patch
Taylor Tew | USFSP
The Blueberry Patch, closed now for renovations, is expected to reopen in early 2020.

USFSP Student Reporter

GULFPORT – Share to survive, survive to share. That’s the mission statement of The Blueberry Patch in Gulfport.

Behind a tucked-away wooden fence at 4923 20th Ave. S lie hundreds of trinkets, tables and chairs in a space that’s hidden like a secret.

Vibrant colors fill the wooded area. Pieces of art abound.

On the 1st, 7th, 11th and 22nd of each month, The Blueberry Patch comes to life to host open-mic night, feature artists, open-jam sessions and band nights that draw dozens of people.

Those specific dates aren’t random. They reflect the beliefs of the late Dallas Bohrer, a devotee of numerology who found occult significance – like creativity, peace, grace – in certain numbers.

Bohrer created The Blueberry Patch on July 7, 1977. (“Established 7-7-7!” says its website). It started in south St. Petersburg, changed locations a few times and landed in Gulfport in 1994.

“BE FEARLESS ON THIS STAGE,” reads a sign on the platform where numerous local artists have performed.

“Our mission is to promote art, music and literature in the community,” said Bob Feckner, one of the 11 board members.

The Blueberry Patch is closed for renovations now, but it is expected to reopen in early 2020.

There are volunteer days every Saturday from 11:11 a.m. to 3 p.m. when anyone can come and help with clean-up. (The number 1111 is considered a code for activation in numerology.)

Feckner said the board often sees a handful of volunteers on Saturdays and occasionally has larger groups of 15 to 20 people.

On Oct. 19 only four volunteers attended, two of them board members. There was trash to be picked up, lights to be hung and branches to be cut down in the spacious yard.

“It’s the music we come for, and the people. I should’ve volunteered sooner,” said first-time volunteer Shannon Walker.

No board member is paid. Every person and volunteer makes a contribution simply by lending a hand.

The Blueberry Patch does take donations at the door, which are used to support the Gulfport Police Department’s yearly charity drive and the Orange Blossom Jamboree, a local music music festival.

The Blueberry Patch’s expressive backyard once belonged to Bohrer, its founder.

He died in 2014, but it is clear the impression he made in the city has endured.

“Dallas described this place like you were inside of a Christmas tree looking out,” said Feckner.

He’s long on flair, short on specifics

Jonah Hinebaugh | USFSP
“I wouldn’t be caught dead in a top hat,” Fried says.

USFSP Student Reporter

GULFPORT – When his former partner crossed a picket line to work on Verizon telephone poles, Richard Fried says, he forcefully reminded him of his duty to the union.

He hammered a sign in the man’s front yard that said “Verizon scab.”

Fried, 53, says he is a man of principle over personality, and that’s the kind of City Council member he would be if he’s elected March 12.

This is his second campaign against incumbent Michael Fridovich, who defeated him two years ago for the right to serve Ward 4, which covers the northeast quarter of the city.

In both campaigns, flair has been Fried’s strong suit while platform specifics have fallen to the wayside.

He wore an elf costume and read Horton Hears a Who in a City Council meeting a few years ago, and in January he appeared at a candidate forum wearing tuxedo print shirt. He also likes to wear – and occasionally hand out – bowler hats.

“I’m a working class person, you know?” Fried said. “I wouldn’t be caught dead in a top hat.”

A main point in Fried’s campaign is a pledge to install solar panels on every city building.

Fried says that Fridovich embraced the same goal two years ago but flip-flopped once he was re-elected.

Fried also wants to close the pay gap between the highest and lowest paid City Hall employees and would like all council members to have regular office hours.

Fried was born in Miami but moved around the country for a few years before returning to Florida when his parents got sick.

He went to Miami Dade College and the University of Southern Maine, where he studied communication theory.

Fried says he found Gulfport while visiting Tampa Bay for Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios in Orlando.

Fried was running late and had gotten lost, but when he found himself in Gulfport around 2 a.m., he knew that there was something special about the city – it had a certain type of energy.

He never made it to Halloween Horror Nights. He just stayed in Gulfport.

Fried moved to the city about a year and a half later and plans to stay in Gulfport for the rest of his life.

“Either Gulfport is tailor-made for me, or I’m tailor-made for it,” Fried said.

He lists his duplex, half of which he rents out, and his job as a certified nursing assistant and medical technician at a St. Petersburg senior living facility as his sources of income.

Although he was laid back when he moved to Gulfport, he says, the election of President Donald Trump drew him back to practicing politics like he did when he was younger.

“When people started protesting, I decided to run for office,” Fried said.

There’s one problem, however: He’s been barred from attending meetings of the Gulfport Democratic Club.

Fried says that he was unfairly kicked out of the club meetings at Stella’s restaurant after confronting Yolanda Roman, who was then a City Council member.

April Thanos, president of the club, said that Fried would not stop being disruptive and Roman left in tears.

Fried says he took out a home equity loan on his house duplex to pay for lawyer fees during his attempt to rejoin the meetings. But Barbara Banno, the owner of Stella’s, has obtained a trespass warning against Fried for his disruptive behavior and the club claims says that there is nowhere else to meet.

“Richard has some good ideas,” Thanos said. “Sometimes he lacks social skills for getting them across.”

He walks and talks Gulfport

Jonah Hinebaugh | USFSP
“You get endorsements because you’ve done a good job,” says Fridovich.

USFSP Student Reporter

GULFPORT – Michael Fridovich took a bite of his glazed donut.

“I shouldn’t be eating this,” he said with a chuckle. “Too much sugar.”

He was sitting in SumitrA Espresso Lounge, a business on the city’s bustling Beach Boulevard. He ordered two bags of coffee to go. Whole beans – he grinds them himself.

Fridovich, 71, makes it a point to support local businesses in Gulfport. He says he has visited every restaurant in the city.

“I like to try to visit as many businesses as possible,” Fridovich said. “There’s a lot of good restaurants here. I’ve tried every restaurant we have. I’ve made it a habit to walk up and down the street and talk to business owners.”

That walking and talking has paid off with three two-year terms on the council. He hopes it pays off again on March 12, when he faces Richard Fried in his quest for a fourth term.

Fridovich hopes to defeat Fried with the same strategy he’s used the past six years: emphasizing his diverse life experiences, working well with City Council colleagues, and attending as many community events as possible.

“I think the difference between me and my opponent is I’ve done a good job locally and also outside the city as a representative,” Fridovich said. “As a City Council person you are a representative of Gulfport wherever you go. There are 120 representatives in Pinellas County. I take being one as an honor. You have to know how to network with people.”

Fridovich points to his endorsements as proof he’s performing well.

“I’ve gotten endorsements from Mayor Sam Henderon, the police sergeants (union), the local fire union and Stonewall Democrats. You don’t get endorsements because people like you. You get endorsements because you’ve done a good job.”

Fridovich says he and the City Council have accomplished a lot in the past six years. With a council-manager form of government, it’s difficult for any one person to take credit for completed projects since it takes three votes to pass an issue.

However, one accomplishment that he said he is comfortable taking credit for is the Gulfport mooring field, an area just off the municipal beach that can accommodate up to 25 vessels.

“I was given credit for the mooring fields. I’ve been pushing it for five years and we finally got it completed. If I wasn’t on the council we’d probably still be talking about the mooring fields,” Fridovich said.

Fridovich brings a lifetime of rich experiences to his position in Gulfport. He says he’s run with the bulls in Spain, lived on a sailboat for three years, and owned a tapas restaurant.

He’s lived a nomadic life, pausing for stretches of time in Miami, Atlanta, the Cayman Islands and South Carolina. He’s worked many jobs, including taxi driver, security guard and real estate agent. He says he feels satisfied since landing in Gulfport and plans to stay.

Despite the constant change in his life, he likes the City Council exactly the way it is.

“I support the entire council as it sits now. We have a good working relationship. It was pointed out two years ago that 98 percent of the time we vote 5-0 on things,” Fridovich said.

As the representative of Ward 4 in the northeastern quarter of the city, Fridovich is particularly vested in its interests.

Ward 4 is more industrial than the other three wards. It can’t claim a jewel like the marina or Stetson University College of Law, and it’s not close to the colorful business district. But any negative connotations about the ward are unwarranted, Fridovich said.

“There’s nothing wrong with Ward 4,” he said. “I take a very proprietary attitude towards my ward. The majority of people who criticize Ward 4 don’t live in Ward 4.”

One of the ways he’s trying to improve the ward is through Trolley Market Square, a new outdoor market that commemorates a trolley line that once connected Gulfport to St. Petersburg.

“There will be concerts and events there. It’s a way to open up the city. So much of our venues are downtown here. Instead of focusing everything downtown, we’re also focusing in my ward,” Fridovich said.

At a candidate forum on Jan. 29, mayoral candidate Frank Kemnetz said crime is the biggest problem facing Gulfport today. Fridovich strongly disagrees. “The police chief has come out to say our crime is down 38 percent. It’s down due to economics and good policing. To say our crime is on the same level as Chicago and Los Angeles is irresponsible. It’s an absurdity,” Fridovich said.

He is not a warm and fuzzy person, Fridovich said, but he likes to keep warm and fuzzy pets. He has always been a cat person and likes to name his feline friends after real people.

His current friends are named Hemingway, Frida (for artist Frida Kahlo) and Bukowski (for poet Charles Bukowski).

Fridovich is a homebody. If he had it his way, he would stay home with his cats and a good book. Stephen Kinzer, John Fante, and Hemingway are among his favorite authors.

Fridovich said he has invested six years in improving Gulfport. He takes offense that the candidates running against the incumbents have little good to say about the city.

“None of the challenging candidates running for office have said anything positive about Gulfport,” Fridovich said.

“They only say what’s wrong with Gulfport. If you’re so unhappy, why are you living here? Are you telling me everything in Gulfport is wrong and you’re the only one who can fix it?”

In a subdued election, her voice stands out

Jonah Hinebaugh | USFSP
“We’re spending money on useless, stupid projects,” Herrod says.

USFSP Student Reporter

GULFPORT – In a City Council election where the incumbents maintain the city is doing just fine, Chrisan Herrod is the most vocal critic.

And that is precisely why she wants to join the council.

“I strongly feel that the incumbents do not listen to your input,” she said at a Jan. 29 candidate forum. “I am running because the incumbents spend your money to study problems rather than solve them.”

Herrod, 64, has lived in Gulfport for almost seven years. She says she has “seen the growth of the city” but also has noticed a lot of problems go unaddressed.

She said she decided to run against restaurateur Byron E. Chalfont and incumbent Christine Brown in the March 12 election because she and several neighbors were frustrated with various issues piling up in the city and the council’s lack of communication.

“I’m also running because (Brown) is unresponsive,” Herrod said. “The council person does not communicate with the citizens of Gulfport and does not, in fact, factor in our opinions about decisions that are made.”

Herrod grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia and joined the Army at 18. After briefly serving as an enlisted member, she worked with the Women’s Army Corps at Pennsylvania State University and was promoted to second lieutenant upon graduation.

She eventually transferred to the Air Force Reserve as an intelligence officer and retired from the military in 2001 as a major.

Since then, Herrod has had all sorts of jobs. She worked with the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and various cyber security companies, most recently Denver-based Optiv Security until July 2018.

She also taught cyber security around the country, and she received a doctorate in education from Northcentral University in July 2018.

Most of her time now consists of campaigning, volunteering for the city’s Multipurpose Senior Center Foundation and the Gulfport Merchants Chamber and getting her new ice cream shop, the Crazy Cow Creamery, up and running.

“My partner and I both love Gulfport, and we felt that what’s been lacking in Gulfport is a family-oriented place to go,” she said.

But as a politician, a major issue for Herrod is zoning in Gulfport. She even acknowledges that people who object to her plans to set up the Crazy Cow on Beach Boulevard may have a point.

“The building is compliant,” she said. “But had I been on City Council at the time, I would have taken a look at the architecture of the building. To prevent that sort of thing from happening again, I think we need to put more effort into our zoning and zoning laws.”

Zoning has been an issue during this election, especially regarding the preservation of Gulfport’s “small, old-town Florida” feel. To forward those efforts, Herrod wants to create a city character document that sets guidelines on how Gulfport should grow.

Tied to zoning laws is her frustration with Gulfport’s city ordinances, which she says are outdated and far too numerous to realistically follow and enforce. She hopes to review the ordinances with a citizen-driven committee recommended by the City Council.

“We have more ordinances in this town than St. Pete has ordinances,” she said. “And it takes at least a week to go through the ordinances. There’s three pages on what you can and can’t do with your dog.”

She presents fiscal responsibility as a key part of her platform, expressing disappointment with how Gulfport’s budget has been managed.

“The taxpayer dollars are not being used in a prioritized manner,” she said. “We’re spending money on useless, stupid projects. That’s City Council’s fault – the city manager proposes something and the City Council just agrees with it. We’ve got to be smarter than that.”

She says that the council’s attempts to seek grants and new sources of income should come second to managing the existing budget.

Herrod also expresses frustration about the cost of what she deems “useless studies” on how to fund projects like the construction of a new Senior Center or the BCYC Breakwater Linear Park development, both of which she declares she will oppose.

Herrod also says that climate resiliency is a serious concern. She is worried about how flooding will affect the coastal town and wants to find a way to implement solar on city buildings.

She also wants to establish a plan for short-term rentals like Airbnb, an issue that provoked debate at the candidate forum. She says that the ordinances of cities like Orlando, which set taxation rules for short-term rental owners, are a good example of how to handle the problem.

But even with an extensive platform, how can a relative newcomer like Herrod defeat an incumbent like Brown, who has been on the council for six years?

“From a political strategy point of view, I’ve done about as much as I can,” Herrod said. “In terms of advertising my brand, I’ve met with people and I’ve talked about my goals and strategies to move Gulfport forward in a deliberate manner with a lot of oversight for taxpayer dollars, and I’ve advertised in the Gabber,” the community weekly.

Herrod hopes to take her political career beyond Gulfport. She looks up to fellow Gulfport resident Jennifer Webb, who became the first married lesbian to hold state office when she was elected to the state House of Representatives last year.

“If nothing else, (my campaign) will raise awareness,” Herrod said. “It’s time that we got people aware of what’s really going on in the town underneath the curtains. Hopefully, that’ll be enough to energize people and get people talking to really try and make a difference.”

And if she doesn’t win?

Well, she has a back-up plan: She’ll run for mayor in three years.

Restaurateur serves up some politics

Jonah Hinebaugh | USFSP
As a businessman, Chalfont says, “I’ve ruffled feathers here.”

USFSP Student Reporter

GULFPORT – Since his boyhood on the New Jersey shore, Byron Chalfont says, he has always lived near the water and indulged his passion for surfing and all things water.

And wherever he has landed – the San Francisco Bay Area, Honolulu and now Gulfport – he opened a restaurant or bar.

Now, five years after arriving in Gulfport, Chalfont has plunged into politics. He is running against Chrisan Herrod and incumbent Christine Brown in the March 12 campaign for the City Council.

Chalfont, 57, acknowledges that he’s not well-versed on all the issues, but he is certain of this:

He wants to end the favoritism he says is widespread in the city’s government.

“It’s the good old boy network here. This is a new century; we need to get out of the 1800s,” Chalfont said.

“I’ve ruffled feathers here (as a businessman) because I was going to be honest and fair to everybody.”

He points to his restaurant, Siri’s Gourmet Burgers and Pizza, as the best evidence he’s well equipped for public service.

He said he turned it from a loser to a winner in five years.

“There’s a reason why I took this place from making $100,000 in sales the first year. I surpassed half a million dollars in sales last year,” he said.

He said the city’s budget and spending need the same attention because “there’s money out there that’s being misspent.”

The parking problems that sometimes affect his restaurant on Beach Boulevard suggest the city needs to consider building a parking garage, he says. He also favors a community pool.

Chalfont attended Fairleigh Dickinson and Rutgers universities in New Jersey but didn’t obtain a degree. He also studied real estate and business law at the College of San Mateo.

He met his wife at a shopping mall in China. She was a college professor there.

They moved to Gulfport from Honolulu to raise their daughter, Siri, 10. Chalfont said he was attacked twice while walking home in Waikiki, the Honolulu neighborhood where they lived. So he and his wife chose to raise their daughter in a smaller, safer town.

A year after they arrived, they had a son, Byron III, now 4.

Chalfont said these days he occasionally heads to Florida’s east coast to surf. Now he takes Siri with him.

Build a parking garage? Not on her watch

Jonah Hinebaugh | USFSP
Brown parlayed 30 years as a volunteer into a seat on the City Council.

USFSP Student Reporter

GULFPORT – There is a large room at the back of Christine Brown’s home where she and her husband store canned goods and other nonperishable food items.

But this is no ordinary pantry.

Alongside the food are hard hats, safety vests, flashlights, safety goggles, gloves, sleeping bags and a portable toilet – items Brown and her husband might need if a disaster strikes Gulfport.

Brown, 57, is a volunteer in the city’s Community Emergency Response Team, one of numerous volunteer roles she has played over the last 30 years.

All that volunteering led eventually to a seat on the Gulfport City Council, where she has served three two-year terms representing Ward 2, which covers the southeast quarter of the city.

Now she is seeking a fourth term in the March 12 election.

Brown makes public safety a priority in her campaign. She also wants to continue upgrading sewers, streets and sidewalks, remove derelict boats from the nearby bay and hold the line on taxes.

The city has only one fire truck, which doubles as an Emergency Medical Services vehicle – a seeming shortage that some have criticized.

But Brown counters that Gulfport Fire Rescue “operates under a statewide mutual aid agreement” signed by all 67 counties. If there is an emergency requiring more than one truck, a nearby fire department will dispatch a vehicle and crew, she said.

There has also been criticism about a shortage of parking in the downtown area. Other candidates have suggested building a parking garage, installing parking meters or paving over some of the city’s green space.

Brown says that the city has been addressing the parking concerns. It plans to examine what is working and what is not, then consider other options.

“As a community, we should encourage other modes of transportation such as biking, walking or even carpooling,” said Brown in an email. “The one thing I do know is that I will never be in favor of paving green spaces for parking or building multi-story parking garages.”

Brown graduated in 1979 from Lakewood High School, received an associate degree in 1990 from St. Petersburg College, a bachelor’s in mathematics in 1992 from Eckerd College and a master’s in education in 2013 from the University of Florida.

She teaches math for college readiness at Boca Ciega High School.

Her husband, Louis Worthington, is a sixth-generation member of a Gulfport founding family. Their daughter, Elizabeth, attends Florida State University.

Like her parents, Elizabeth has long been a volunteer around town.

Each year, to mark Elizabeth’s birthday, Brown and Worthington hold a mullet fry, a celebration that draws family, friends and neighbors.

Instead of gifts, Elizabeth asks for canned goods or money for donation to the Gulfport Multipurpose Senior Center.

Crime drives his campaign for mayor

Jonah Hinebaugh | USFSP
Kemnetz says he decided to run after the incumbent helped engineer a pay raise for himself.

USFSP Student Reporter

GULFPORT – He lives in Gulfport’s lone gated community, where he says perpetrators walk down the street at night rummaging through unlocked vehicles and a woman woke up to find a man in her bedroom.

Crime, says Frank J. Kemnetz, is the city’s biggest problem, along with government transparency. That’s why he is running for mayor in the March 12 election.

“Those crimes that were committed could have been prevented just by encouraging people to lock their doors, their vehicles and their homes,” said Kemnetz, 61. “But those habits don’t change if you’re trying to convince people that Gulfport is very safe and they’ve got nothing to worry about.

“What you see coming from government officials is, ‘We’ve got this problem under control, and we’re doing a good job.’”

Kemnetz’s platform cites neighborhoodscout.com in calling Gulfport more dangerous than New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles. The website relies on 2017 data from the FBI.

Gulfport police reported in February that the number of crimes in 2018 was the lowest in 34 years.

“It’s still not reported as a crime rate,” Kemnetz said. “Until you get official numbers on the population, you don’t know exactly what the crime rate is.”

He said that even though most crimes in Gulfport are non-violent, property theft can still be “a traumatic thing for people.”

If elected, he said, he plans to increase public awareness and monitoring of city surveillance cameras, as well as “Ring” video doorbells, which allow users to share footage via social media.

Kemnetz and his wife moved into the Pasadena Yacht and Country Club neighborhood in 2012. They live in a 3,895-square-foot home worth $826,400.

He said he decided to run for mayor two years ago, when the incumbent, Sam Henderson, helped engineer pay raises for himself and members of the City Council. The mayor now makes $14,400 a year and council members, $10,800.

“They said at that time that (the City) Council has only had one increase in the last 14 years,” he said. “That one increase in the past 14 years was just three years prior, when (Henderson) was mayor, and it was a 25 percent increase.

“So you put the two together and you realize he’s trying to double his pay in three years. That bothered me.”

“I don’t have an opinion about what the appropriate level of pay should be, but I do have an opinion that it should be researched and recommended by an independent third party,” Kemnetz said.

Kemnetz grew up on a farm with a family of 10 in Strawn, Illinois, where he said his upbringing helped shape his values.

“You learn from a very early age the strong work ethic that’s required on a farm,” he said. “For example, I used to milk cows by hand, morning and night, seven days a week.”

In 1980, he graduated from the University of Illinois with a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering because he wanted to help solve the energy crisis.

He’s a retired executive of three overseas Exxon affiliates: Exxon Al-Khaleej, Exxonmobil Upstream Ventures Middle East and Exxonmobil Abu Dhabi Offshore Petroleum.

His career made him an advocate for solar energy, which he plans to stress if elected.

“Even though the Middle East is a big oil- and gas-producing region, they had a very strong emphasis on solar energy because they had so much potential,” he said.

With a background in engineering, Kemnetz has pledged to improve the city’s infrastructure.

“Your first priority in terms of maintaining integrity of assets is you have to know the condition of the assets,” he said. “If you’re not doing inspections or pressure-testing, things of this nature, you have no idea what kind of problems you might have.”

When Gulfport conducted a study on its sewer system in 2016, only part of the system was studied using video cameras, according to the Gabber, a community weekly.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection required the city to record its entire sewer system in order to qualify for low-interest loans to repair it.

“So you’ve got to ask yourself: If the Florida Department of Environmental Protection had to step in and mandate these repairs and so forth, what does that say about the job the city was doing in taking care of infrastructure?” Kemnetz said.

Even though he’s retired, Kemnetz serves as president of his neighborhood association. He also sings in his church’s choir and is president of a barbershop quartet group called the Florida Suncoast Chorus.

While living overseas, he served as school board chairman of the American Community School of Abu Dhabi – an institution accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools that provides American-style curriculum to 1,200 students from 60 countries.

He was also a regional board member of INJAZ Al-Arab, a nonprofit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and financial literacy to Arab youth.

“A lifetime of being involved in service activities is one of the reasons why, moving here, I wanted to get involved in activities where I could support and give back to the community,” he said.

He said he will rely on public opinion to drive most of his decisions as mayor.

Although residents have the opportunity to comment at City Council meetings, those comments don’t represent the broader community if only 10 or 15 people show up, he said. He plans to generate feedback through surveys via robocall or email.

Kemnetz said he believes the character of the city depends heavily on the character of its leadership, which is why he vows to lead based on “the will of the people” rather than his own agenda.

“In order to be able to preserve character, you have to have clarity from citizens as to what you really mean by that,” he said.

All he wanted to do was host a block party

Jonah Hinebaugh | USFSP
Henderson is seeking a third term as mayor

USFSP Student Reporter

GULFPORT – To hear Sam Henderson tell it, he went to City Hall to get permission to hold a block party and wound up on the City Council.

It was 2006. He and his family had just moved to Gulfport from Ohio for his job doing environmental remediation at MacDill Air Force Base and Tyndall Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle.

To get to know his new neighbors, Henderson said, he decided to throw a block party. When he called the chief of police to get permission, he was directed to a City Council meeting.

He stayed for the whole meeting, Henderson said, and found himself surprised by the council’s decision-making and lack of questions.

A couple of months later, the council voted 4-1 to decline a free offer from the USF College and Marine Science for real-time water quality monitoring buoys. Henderson thought that was a big mistake.

“You know, I may not be the biggest genius in the world. But I think I can do a way better job than this,” Henderson said he told himself.

So he successfully ran for a council seat in 2009 and served two two-year terms representing Ward 4 in the northeastern quarter of the city. In 2013, he was elected mayor and has served two three-year terms.

Now he’s running for re-election.

Henderson, 47, has a bachelor’s degree from USF St. Petersburg in environmental science and policy with a minor in geography. In 2014, he earned a master’s from USFSP through the Florida Studies Program with a focus in public policy and ecology.

In the past, he has been Gulfport’s poet laureate, lead singer with his wife in a now-defunct band called The Hot Tub Club, and a part-time bartender. Now he teaches earth science and environmental science classes at St. Petersburg College

Before coming to Gulfport, Henderson said, he had always been politically active. But running for office was never something on his radar.

In Ohio, Henderson said, he was a part of a group called GYVO, which stands for “Get Your Vote On.” The group worked to register voters.

“At the time, my wife and I had a seven-piece blues jazz band, so we’d do that at our concerts and register voters during the breaks,” Henderson said.

He and his wife, Laura, whom he calls his best friend, have a 22-year-old daughter, Brenna, and two rescue dogs.

The Hendersons took in Charlie Brown, a brown pit bull, three years ago when they realized the dog’s owners had abandoned him. Henderson calls him the “campaign dog” because they got him in the middle of the last election cycle.

They rescued their other dog, Tucker, an American boxer/lab mix, seven years ago at a pet adoption event in downtown Gulfport.

For Henderson, a typical day has him walking his dogs, teaching at St. Petersburg College and responding to the issues facing Gulfport residents.

“People knock on the door, catch me at the grocery store … I’ll go to dinner with Laura and if we’re sitting outside someone might stop for 10 minutes and tell me about the pothole in their street,” Henderson said.

Henderson identified three issues most important to him and his platform.

The first is remaining a full-service city. He takes great pride in Gulfport having its own police and fire departments, marina, library, theater and casino, and he is determined to maintain that level of autonomy.

The second is infrastructure improvements, from sewer work to street and sidewalk paving.

The third is what he calls a “community for a lifetime” philosophy.

“I want to make sure that we do stuff to take care of everybody from our youngest to our oldest,” Henderson said.

That includes planning for and investing in a new senior center.

His opponent, Frank Kemnetz, a Gulfport resident for five years, is running on a platform focused on crime. Henderson disputes Kemnetz’s allegations that Gulfport “has a higher crime rate than New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles.”

“The chief of police just did a report because we got the 2018 numbers, and it is the lowest crime rate is 34 years and the highest clearance rate ever,” Henderson said. “And the downward trend has been since like 2001 has been steadily declining.”

“It just seemed like he (Kemnetz) was very out of touch. And it just struck me as a fear mongering tactic.”

According to Henderson, Kemnetz’s focus on crime stems from his neighbor getting his wallet stolen – an assertion Kemnetz disputes.

Kemnetz has also accused Henderson of helping engineer two raises for himself as mayor.

Henderson acknowledges he brought up raises in 2014 and again in 2017 because the mayor and council had gone years without a raise.

“Other employees get a cost-of-living adjustment. And it’s a stipend for the council. For me, it’s $14,400, which ends up being about $13,000 take home and then (the) council is a little bit below that,” Henderson said.

“Lining my pockets with a below-poverty-level stipend is not something I’m doing. I’m driving a 2001 Taurus right now. So, if I’m a corrupt politician, I am terrible at it.”

Henderson says the first time he met Kemnetz was the day before a January candidate forum.

“There are so many opportunities to go out and meet people and participate, and I’ve never seen him in a City Council meeting ever, I’ve never seen him at a volunteer event or like a charitable cause of anything that we do,” Henderson said. “So, it’s like, how involved are you and what were you waiting for?”

Henderson had a brush with the law in what he refers to as his “wild youth.”

In 1989, when he was 17, he was charged with five misdemeanors for possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia in North Carolina, records show.

Henderson said he addressed his “party-related crimes” in a City Council meeting after someone anonymously sent copies of his arrest record to Gulfport residents.

Henderson said he learned a lot from the incident and that the people of Gulfport didn’t seem to care.

His popularity actually went up, he joked, when residents found out their mayor wasn’t exactly “squeaky clean.”