He remembers darker days for Gulfport police

Chief Vincent
Courtesy Gulfport Police Department
Chief Vincent stresses professionalism, open communication

USFSP Student Reporter

GULFPORT – When he was 8, Robert Vincent and two other young troublemakers were caught throwing rocks and breaking windows in Pinellas Park. They had busted every window in two houses that were under construction.

It was an embarrassing moment for the chastened youngster, who got a stern lecture from a police officer.

“I got my nose clean after that,” Vincent said. “I didn’t hang out with anyone who did that.”

Later, as he chose a career path, he thought about that incident and the other two boys. One ended up in prison. He wasn’t sure what happened to the other but knew it probably wasn’t good.

“What if I could have an impact on another young person straightening themselves out?” Vincent asked.

Thirteen years later, in 1994, he became a police officer himself, joining the department in Gulfport, a city of 12,500 not far from the place where he was caught breaking windows.

It was the first step in a law enforcement career that led in 2010 to his appointment as chief of the department, which has 32 sworn officers, eight civilians and a budget of $3.6 million for the 2018 year.

In Vincent’s early years at the agency, it was a place where many things seemed to be broken.

There was a U.S. Justice Department investigation into allegations of racism and incompetence in the arrest of a young, mildly retarded black man. Complaints from residents that some Gulfport officers were sexist and racist. An embarrassing episode when a department veteran misplaced a resident’s complaint against another officer.

In 1998, the St. Petersburg Times summed up the department’s woes in a lengthy analysis headlined “Gulfport tries to polish badge’s tarnished image.”

Today’s department is far more professional and progressive than the agency of the ‘90s, said Vincent, 45.

The problem officers are long gone, he said. The department is accredited by the Commission for Florida Law Enforcement Accreditation – which requires compliance with more than 250 professional standards. And the agency takes pains to listen and act on residents’ concerns.

Vincent emphasizes communication. In 2010 he created a blog to inform the community about how the department spends its budget and encourage discussion on issues like the use of police body cameras.

He also likes to spend an hour each day out in the community speaking with business owners, residents and tourists.

“My belief is that this police department owes more to this community than to simply answer your calls,” Vincent says on the department’s website. “We must be, and will be, an integral part of Gulfport.”

In an interview, the chief said he is “absolutely confident” the problems of the 1990s “couldn’t happen today.”

But he keeps a link to that 1998 Times analysis in his laptop to remind himself of the department’s darker days.

Vincent grew up with his mom, older brother and younger sister in Pinellas Park. But when he was 14 his mother died from a heart attack.

“That was a tough time,” Vincent said. “I don’t know how it happened, but the judge appointed my brother to take care of us.”

His brother was only 18. All three siblings had to grow up quickly.

“A lot of going through that played a big part in who I am today,” Vincent said.

He graduated from Gibbs High School in 1990, the same year he became an Eagle Scout. Then he was off to Florida Southern on an ROTC scholarship. Plan A was the military.

When that fizzled, he went to Plan B, graduating from the police academy before joining the Gulfport department in May 1994 as a patrol officer.

Over the years, he moved up the ranks – patrol officer, school resource officer at Boca Ciega High School, patrol supervisor, then commander of the patrol and investigative services divisions.

Meanwhile, he was earning a bachelor’s in professional writing at USF in 2000 and a master’s in criminal justice administration at USF in 2008. He attended the FBI National Academy in 2006.

Since Vincent has dedicated much of his life to police work, his first piece of advice to new officers may seem surprising.

“It’s important to have a life (outside policing) when you’re in this business; I tell all the new guys this,” he said. “If this is your (whole) life, then you will take everything personally. If you start taking it personally, then you will react unprofessionally.”

For this reason, he said, he makes sure to follow his own advice.

When people say, “I hate the cops,” it doesn’t bother him, he said. “Well, I don’t care if you hate the cops because I’m not a cop, I’m me,” he said. “My job is not me.”

Vincent’s tenure as chief has not been without controversy and embarrassing moments.

In 2012, one of his officers chased a stolen car through the city and onto Interstate 275, then into St. Petersburg, where it hit a bus that then crashed into an apartment building.

Two people in the car were seriously injured, and several bus passengers required treatment. When he arrived at the scene, St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster sharply criticized the Gulfport’s officer’s decision to give chase.

“That pursuit wouldn’t have been authorized” under the St. Petersburg Police Department’s chase policy, Foster told the Times.

Vincent still defends his officer, noting that the officer followed department policy, which “was in line with what the Gulfport people wanted at the time.”

Gulfport’s policy is different now, Vincent says, but not because of the 2012 incident.

Three years later brought another embarrassing incident. The chief’s unmarked cruiser went missing from the driveway of his home in St. Petersburg.

Inside the vehicle, the Times reported, were two bags of police gear, disposable handcuffs, a riot helmet and a police jacket.

Luckily, police soon found the cruiser, which was abandoned after a 16-year-old and two younger accomplices realized the car they had stolen was a police vehicle.

Vincent and the Gulfport department were “the brunt of several jokes because we’re the ones always preaching to lock your car,” the chief said.

Although Vincent got his cruiser back, he was not happy at the way the theft played out in court.

The 16-year-old pleaded guilty, served time in a program, and then, according to the Times, went to a restitution hearing to see how much he owed the chief and the city.

There, to Vincent’s dismay, the judge told the teenager that it probably wouldn’t matter if he ever paid the $800.

Vincent said he wrote the judge to protest and they later talked on the phone. “She has her opinion, I have mine, and we don’t agree,” he said.

The case speaks volumes about broader problems in the juvenile justice system, the chief said.

“The juvenile system has a lot of improvement that could be done,” he said. “Essentially the theory right now is that it’s the parents’ responsibility to discipline their children, but there are a lot of children who don’t have parents to step in or who won’t.”

“If the juvenile system won’t step in, then who will?”

Vincent knows all too well that many children don’t have strong parental figures in their lives.

That’s one of the reasons that when he makes his daily rounds in the community, one stop is a fixture in his routine: Boca Ciega High School at dismissal time.

Heady brew eases pain, stirs controversy

Kris Lange
Courtesy of Kris Lange
Lange (pictured with her grandson) says kratom works better than pain pills.

USFSP Student Reporter

GULFPORT – It’s a slow Monday afternoon. People are scattered throughout the bar, some smoking outside on the patio, others catching up with friends or doing work at the high tops inside.

But this is no ordinary watering hole.

The Low Tide Kava Bar specializes in drinks made from the leaves and roots of Southeast Asian plants, and its customers include a giggling 3-year-old named Augustus, who sits at the bar in the lap of his grandmother Kris Lange, 47.

Chattering away, the blond, blue-eyed toddler eats yogurt-covered raisins and plays games on his grandmother’s phone while Lange talks with the bartenders and nurses three drinks – a diet Mountain Dew, a cappuccino and a glass of kratom.

For most of her life, Lange said, she has had health issues that leave her with chronic pain. She once lived off pain pills, which she took every day. At one point she was taking more than 120 pills per month, she said, and when she stopped taking them, she was “in pain on a daily basis.”

That was until four years ago, when she discovered kratom.

Lange said she drinks two glasses per day – one in the afternoon and one right before bed. The drink helps alleviate her back pain and makes her comfortable enough to fall asleep at night. She said kratom doesn’t fully take away her pains – but neither did the narcotics.

“It helps me so much more than any kind of narcotic or anything that I’ve tried in the past,” she said.

Kratom comes from the leaves of a plant native to Southeast Asia called the Mitragyna speciosa, a tropical evergreen in the coffee family. You can brew it as a tea, take it as a powder in capsules, or chew and swallow it.

Kratom receives mixed views, however. Some tout it as the miracle product that helps with everything from anxiety to back pain, while others fear that it will be the next big addictive drug to take over the streets.

In November 2017, the Food and Drug Administration issued a public statement advising against kratom and warning users of the potential risks.

In a press release, the FDA said research has shown evidence “that kratom has similar effects to narcotics like opioids, and carries similar risks of abuse, addiction and in some cases, death.”

The herbal supplement has some opioid-like effects, leading the Drug Enforcement Administration to characterize it as an opioid. Because of this, some people use kratom to wean off an opioid addiction – something the FDA finds “very troubling.”

In August 2016, the DEA proposed a plan to label kratom as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act, but there was such an outcry that the agency withdrew the plan and asked the FDA to speed up its study of the supplement, according the Washington Post.

Schedule 1 or Class 1 drugs – like heroin, cocaine and LSD – are illegal because of their high abuse potential. They have no medical use and serious safety concerns. Marijuana is also labeled as a Schedule 1 drug although it is legal in some states, including Florida, for recreational and medical use.

As of late 2017, the FDA reported 44 deaths caused by kratom, whereas in 2016, 42,249 people died from opioid overdose, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

For Lange, the DEA’s attempt to label kratom as a Schedule 1 drug is “very upsetting.”

“There’s a product here that helps people dramatically and does not have the side effects that most prescription drugs have,” she said. “I think they’re trying to do that because they’re not able to make money off of (kratom) right now.”

Lange said she also drinks kava, a tea that comes from the roots of the plant Piper methysticum and hails from the South Pacific.

The tea is said to have sedative-like properties. In some cultures, kava has been used for centuries in religious and cultural traditions, including weddings, political events, funerals and royal events.

Kava is less controversial than kratom in the U.S. But the FDA has warned that it might cause liver problems, and it is banned in the United Kingdom, Germany and France.

The kava bar in Gulfport offers three varieties of kava and four strains of kratom: White Maeng-Da, Green Malay, Red Maeng-Da and Green Borneo.

The first two strains of kratom energize the drinker, while the others aid in relaxation. The malay and borneo also bring feelings of euphoria. Lange said she prefers the Green Borneo with a shot of simple syrup.

The drinks range in price from $6 for a single (8-ounce) glass and $11 for a double (16-ounce) glass.

Unflavored kratom is comparable to a strong, thick black tea. The bitter taste leaves your mouth dry and lingers for a few minutes after your first sip.

Many drinkers prefer to flavor their kratom. According to John Clark, 28, who has been working at Low Tide since it opened in 2014, the most popular flavors are blood orange and passion fruit.

The kava bar, at 2902-A Beach Boulevard S, celebrated its four-year anniversary in February, and Clark said guests came all the way from California.

The slow-paced bar is open daily from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. and upholds the city’s motto, “Keep Gulfport Weird.”

On the outside, the building is a mustard yellow with a dark purple trim. The inside is painted light blue, and the back wall has a mural that reflects owner Sean Simpson’s love of Star Wars.

Indie music echoes throughout the bar, and the TV comedy “The Office” plays on a loop behind the bar. Brightly colored paintings from local artist Robert Tillberg hang on one wall, and a video game station is set up beside the couch in the back of the bar.

Above the bathroom doors is a sign that welcomes males, females and aliens.

According to Clark, Low Tide was the second kava/kratom bar to open in Pinellas County. He said that after it opened, kava bars started to pop up across the country.

“I’m not saying we started that, but after we opened up we started hearing about places in Manhattan, California, Portland and North Carolina opening up,” he said. “We just heard about all of these places and kinda just this huge network of kava bars. We’re kinda the young kids making a name for ourselves.”

Other local kava bars include Grassroots Kava House at 957 Central Ave., Bula Kafe at 2500 Fifth Ave. N and Mad Hatters Ethnobotanical Tea Bar at 4685 28th St. N.

Lange said that while she does venture occasionally to other kava bars she always comes back to Low Tide because it’s her “home base.” She stops by every day – sometimes twice.

She said she wishes that more people knew about kratom, and that those who do weren’t so reluctant to try it.

Clark echoes Lange’s feelings, saying that he doesn’t like the negative buzz about the herbal supplement.

“I understand that it’s one of those things where you don’t know what it is and then you have more of a tendency to fear it,” he said.

Information from the Washington Post, WebMD and the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology was used in this report.

She declares war on the humble plastic straw

Jennifer Winn
Courtesy Jennifer Winn
A girlhood spent near the water helped make Winn an advocate for the environment.

USFSP Student Reporter

GULFPORT – What started as a law school project is now a proposed ordinance that would ban plastic straws in Gulfport.

Jennifer Winn, a 24-year-old student at Stetson University College of Law, took an environmental advocacy course this spring that requires students to tackle a semester-long project.

Her project? A campus ban on plastic straws, the ubiquitous – and indestructible – fixtures of modern life that end up clogging landfills, despoiling beaches and killing marine life.

That project eventually morphed into a proposal now being discussed by the Gulfport City Council to ban plastic straws from restaurants and beaches throughout the city.

When Winn reached out to City Council members, Michael Fridovich was the first to respond with his support.

“What are you doing right now?” he asked when he called her.

“Well, I’m about to watch a macaw fly over my head,” she responded.

A few weeks later, Mayor Sam Henderson reached out to say he liked the idea, too, and the city staff drafted the proposed ordinance.

When she isn’t studying for law school, Winn externs at Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park in Tampa, where, much to her chagrin, she works more with “people law” than “animal law.”

As a girl, she bounced between Gulf Breeze in the Florida Panhandle and St. Marys, Georgia – two small towns on the water – and dreamed of someday studying marine biology at James Cook University, the Australian school that stresses research in the ecosystems, people and economies of the tropics.

For her, growing up by the water was everything.

“I think it’s the most amazing thing, and I feel sad for people who aren’t there,” Winn said. “Just to be able to go outside and smell the saltwater. I feel like a lot of people don’t know what that’s like.”

When girlhood dreams met reality, however, Winn ended up at the University of Florida, where she graduated in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in criminology, and then New Jersey, where she had a sales job with an energy company.

After a while the company needed her to move and she was faced with a decision: relocate to Cleveland or go to law school?

Law school it was.

Winn said she has been trying to make a difference ever since. Hence her concerns about plastic products, especially single-use, disposable plastic straws.

According to the nonprofit recycling organization Eco-Cycle, the United States goes through 500 million plastic straws a day. That’s enough to fill more than 127 school buses, Eco-Cycle says on its website.

Amid growing concerns over the environmental impact of all that plastic, governments and corporations around the world have begun to crack down on the sale and use of plastic products like straws.

British Prime Minister Theresa May last month announced a proposed ban on the sale of plastic straws and stirrers and urged the 52 nations in the Commonwealth to follow suit.

In the United States, cities such as Seattle, Miami Beach, Fort Myers Beach, and San Luis Obispo and Malibu, California, have already moved to ban plastic straws.

Locally, there has recently been discussion about limiting single-use plastic in St. Petersburg in a “No Straws St. Pete” campaign led by City Council member Gina Driscoll. Winn appeared before the council to urge a ban on plastic straws.

But some officials aren’t buying into the ban.

Gulfport City Council member Dan Liedtke didn’t seem too keen on the idea during an April 17 council meeting, saying that he wasn’t “in the business of banning things.”

He expressed concerns over how a ban would be enforced and instead supported creating an awareness campaign on the issue.

He also pointed to other harmful items that wash up on beaches, such as plastic bottles and bags. What would the city do about those? he asked.

To Winn, plastic straws are just the start of something bigger.

“It’s not about me or how I say it. I just want the message to be heard,” she said.

When she isn’t serving on the board for the Environmental Law Society and the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund at Stetson, you might find her cooking empanadas or walking her 5-year-old rottweiler-German shepherd mix, Luna.

Winn loves board games and describes herself as “way too competitive,” noting that she hates to lose at Monopoly. She’ll be studying in Cape Town, South Africa, this summer, and still dreams of getting a degree in biology someday.

Living by the water is still everything, she said.

“When you stick your feet in and you can’t see land for miles, it makes you realize that the world is so, so much bigger than yourself.”

Information from the New York Times was used in this report.

Public office is not a trivial pursuit for him

Tim Fanning | USFSP
Success is “doing what makes sense,” says Liedtke.

USFSP Student Reporter

GULFPORT — You could say that lawn furniture helped drive Dan Liedtke into small town politics.

He was a business and information technology consultant with experience in both the federal government and large private corporations when he and his wife moved to Gulfport in 2003.

He grew tired, he said, of hearing about a City Council that spent “too much time dealing with trivial things like what kinds of patio furniture should be allowed on your front lawn.”

So in 2012 Liedtke confounded family and friends by running for a council seat – and winning by nine votes.

Now, he is seeking a fourth two-year term in the March 13 election in a decidedly low-key campaign against attorney Bruce A. Plesser for the seat in Ward I, which covers the southwest quadrant of the city.

And he is pleased to assert that the council is now debating meatier things than furniture.
“We stopped talking about what classifies as outdoor furniture and started talking about how we can make our (downtown) casino profitable, how do we make our marina better,” said Liedtke, 48. “We started focusing on (using) the assets of Gulfport to generate revenue, not the citizens.”
What matters to Gulfport, Liedtke said, is finding ways to generate revenue without raising taxes on residents and homeowners.

It’s improving infrastructure and sewers. And it’s preparing for a possible decline in tax revenue if a proposed state constitutional amendment raising the homestead exemption gets on the Nov. 6 ballot and wins voter approval.

“It’s about doing what makes sense,” he said.

Liedtke is against so-called sanctuary cities, which assert a right to resist cooperating with federal immigration officials and holding people who may be in the country illegally.

He said he supports medical marijuana and property owners’ rights. He wants to keep downtown parking free, allow short term rentals like Airbnb and encourage newer buildings to add solar energy panels.

At a candidate forum in January, Liedtke said he would oppose any attempt to outsource the Gulfport Police Department to the Pinellas County sheriff. He also said he would make police body cameras optional for the Gulfport officers who wear them.

An officer should be allowed to turn the camera off when he wants to, he said. “But if something happens, he better explain why it’s off.”

Liedtke has won the endorsement of Gulfport Mayor Sam Henderson, who said Liedtke “does his homework and handles himself professionally.”

“He’s a straight shooter. If he’s got a disagreement with someone, he’ll give you facts to back up what he thinks,” said Henderson, who has held office for nine years, five as mayor.

Yolanda Roman, a council member since 2014, has a different opinion. She said the city could benefit from new blood.

“Personally, I would like to see turnover. That’s not taking a position against Mr. Liedtke, but I think it’s time for whatever candidate comes along with fresh ideas, different thoughts,” she said. “It’s good. I don’t like things to get stagnant.”

Liedtke was born in Minnesota but grew up in South Dakota. His parents separated when he was 3.

At the candidate forum, Liedtke talked about growing up with a single mother.

“My parents divorced when I was 3, so I had to look at my mother as a role model,” he said. “She was the one who got me to school, got me to church, made sure I went to college.”

Liedtke, who doesn’t have children, doesn’t talk about his work as a council member with his wife Michelle or his family.

“I keep that separate from my personal life,” he said, but did not elaborate.

A Texas State University graduate, he moved to Tampa in 1999. He lived near the airport, where he routinely traveled to Washington, D.C., working for various organizations, including the staff of the chief administration officer of the House of Representatives.

He now works as an information technology consultant for Memorial Healthcare System.

Although he was used to the federal government and large corporations, he chose to run for the City Council in 2012 because that’s where he felt he could make the most difference.

“I ran for City Council because I wanted to have the decision-making ability over things that affected me,” he said.

In his time as a council member, he has repeatedly criticized St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, who Liedtke said is responsible for the 200-million-gallon sewage spill in 2015-2016 that has damaged Clam Bayou, a 170-acre estuary between the two cities.

Liedtke had an embarrassing moment shortly after he was elected in 2012. During a council discussion on federal environmental regulations, he read from a Washington Examiner piece as if it was his own words.

The Gabber newspaper reprinted those comments, then quickly retracted them when it learned they had been plagiarized.

Liedtke, who acknowledged he had taken his comments “word for word” from the Examiner, also apologized. “I didn’t handle it properly … and I haven’t done anything like that again,” he said recently.

Liedtke said he’s got an easygoing attitude and that his idea of a campaign fundraiser is more of a social event to “drink a beer and eat good food together.”

“Running for City Council is a win-win situation for me,” he said. “It’s fun. If I win, I get to hopefully continue to do what I can to improve the city. But if I lose, I get a whole lot more time on my hands to do what I want to do.”

He is an unconventional candidate in a quirky town

Courtesy Bruce Plesser
Mugging with a dog like Fritz is Gulfport’s “version of baby kissing,” Plesser quips.

USFSP Student Reporter

GULFPORT – In a quirky town with funky shops, quaint restaurants and colorful street festivals, Bruce A. Plesser seems to fit right in.

The self-proclaimed “progressive liberal” promises to “ruffle feathers” if he is elected to the City Council on March 13, and he embraces Gulfport’s unofficial motto – “Keep Gulfport Weird” – as his campaign slogan.

His campaign is, in fact, pretty weird.

Since paying the city’s $108 filing fee to run, he has neither accepted nor spent a dime on his candidacy.

He says people know where he stands on things – but also says he has a “fluid way of looking at issues” and will support what his constituents favor.

And during a candidate forum in January, he himself brought up a blemish on his record – a DUI conviction.

Plesser, 65, an attorney, is running against incumbent Dan Liedtke for the Ward 1 seat on the council, which covers the southwest quadrant of the city of 12,400.

For the most part, the campaign has been a low-key, gentlemanly affair.

When he meets people during his regular routine, he mentions that he is running for the council, Plesser said, and he is active on social media.

“I’m relying on social media and my council page (on Facebook), which I post on, to give me exposure as well as word of mouth (by people) who are politically aligned to me to spread the word,” he said.

He said that 40 years’ experience as a lawyer will help him make a difference in Gulfport.

Maintaining the city’s character is important to him, he said. He pledges to focus on fixing Gulfport’s sewage problems and study the city budget line by line.

He said he favors making Gulfport a sanctuary city, which would limit how much city police would cooperate with federal immigration officials on holding people who may be in the country illegally.

He strongly opposes having parking meters anywhere in Gulfport, and he would oppose giving city police officers the discretion to turn off their body cameras.

Courtesy Bruce Plesser
After a decade as a prosecutor, Plesser has spent three decades in private practice.

Plesser, a New York native, graduated from Emory University in Atlanta and law school at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1978, then began his law career in his hometown of Westmere on Long Island.

He was a prosecutor on Long Island for 10 years, then turned to private practice, where he has handled criminal, personal injury, employee rights and family law cases.

He has lived in Gulfport since 2005 and serves on the residents’ board at Town Shores, a condominium community for people over 55, where he lives.

Mayor Sam Henderson said he knows Plesser through social media and thinks he is too vocal and “reactionary.”

“I don’t think reactionary people do a good job in public service,” Henderson said. “He tends to criticize things before he understands the issue. He instead seems to go off the cuff before he fully understands. That’s a dangerous way to behave if it’s your job to understand the way things work.”

Plesser would be “a terrible person for the job,” said Henderson. “The city would suffer with him in office.”

But two-term council member Yolanda Roman, who will be leaving at the end of this term, said she likes to see turnover in office.

“If (Plesser) were to win, he would bring a different perspective, diversity of thought, maybe new challenges,” she said. “And my thing is, ‘Why not?’”

Plesser would also bring a bit of controversy.

As he acknowledged at the candidate forum, a DUI arrest in 2008 led to a conviction two years later. He completed 150 hours of community service and paid $1,082 in fees and costs, according to court records.

He mentioned the arrest while praising the city’s police. They “know everybody’s name,” Plesser said, and “they’ve always been fair to me, even when I was arrested for a DUI.”

Around that same time, he was also kicked out of O’Maddy’s Bar and Grille.

According to Plesser, he made a comment about public defenders that offended a bartender, and it led to him being escorted out by police officers.

In February 2017, Plesser returned to O’Maddy’s with a date. The manager notified police, who escorted him out and gave him a trespass warning, records show.

A tree grows in Gulfport (and what a tree it is)

Ryan Callihan | USFSP
The tree Dimitra Pastras inherited from her father doesn’t require much – just “Florida rain and Florida sunshine,” she says.

USFSP Student Reporter

GULFPORT – She ate as many as she could. She gave them to family and friends. She even gave them to the homeless.

But no matter what she did, Dimitra Pastras still had too many avocados. Way too many.

“Even when I was giving them away, I was throwing away bushels of them,” she said.

Determined to find a use for all that fruit, Pastras learned how to convert avocados into body care products and avocado pits into jewelry.

Now, her Avocado Tree Project has a website and a booth at Gulfport’s Tuesday Fresh Market, where she hawks her wares and donates a dollar from every sale to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

“It’s really not a business,” she said. “It’s a project. I do it, I meet people and I give back.”

Pastras, 60, moved to Gulfport in 2008 to take care of her elderly parents. When they died, she said, she decided to stay in Gulfport, where she inherited her parents’ house and a fertile, 25-foot-tall avocado tree.

Her father, Harry Pastras, planted the tree in the fall of 2001. He emigrated from Katakolon, Greece, in 1988 to Michigan, where he owned a garden shop.

“When my dad was in Michigan, he was a florist and he actually had a garden center,” said Pastras. “He was very big into botany and he was the same way in Greece.”

He grafted the tree from a Florida avocado and a Haas avocado.

Courtesy of Dimitra Pastras
The products made from Pastras’ avocados are featured at the Tuesday Fresh Market in Gulfport.

“A Florida avocado is a very large fruit,” she said. “They’re very large and watery. The Haas are smaller and very meaty with nutrition that you want from an avocado. When you graft them together, you get a bigger Haas avocado with a lot of oils in it.”

Pastras said she planted a sister tree a few years ago. Now the two trees produce 200 to 300 pounds of avocados a year. But that isn’t because Pastras has a green thumb.

“Believe me, I’m not proficient in growing avocados,” she said. “I don’t water them. I don’t fertilize them. I don’t put insecticides on them. They just grow on their own. Florida rain and Florida sunshine – that’s it.”

When she decided to try to turn her abundant avocado crop into other products, she ran into a problem.

“They come in all at once – usually in September,” said Pastras. “After that, they’re gone and they don’t come back for another year.”

The internet wasn’t much help, she said, so she spent a year of trial and error before she found a way to keep the avocados fresh.

“I started teaching myself how to process (avocados),” she said. “And I had plenty of avocados to be able to do it with.”

Even when Pastras was using the meat of the avocado for body care products, she felt that she was wasting too much of the fruit. So she began incorporating the pits into her projects, too.

Courtesy of Dimitra Pastras
The pits of avocados end up in jewelry like this pendant.

To make pendants, she carves each pit into a certain design. Next, she puts the carved pit through a drying process for seven to 14 days. Pastras said that she couldn’t duplicate the exact style of a piece if she wanted to because the pit takes on its own character once it’s dry.

“They’re as unique as anyone who buys them,” she said.

Pastras’ jewelry ranges from $15 to $60, but she says the time she invests makes them worth more than that.

In November, Pastras became one of the dozens of vendors at the Tuesday Fresh Market, an open-air bazaar on Beach Boulevard near the Gulfport waterfront. The response was so good she decided to keep making her wares.

Her father, who died of cancer in 2009, was a generous man who “always took care of young people,” she said. “He wanted to give back, and I wanted to give back, too.”

She said she donates one dollar from every sale to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital to honor her father’s memory and others who are battling cancer. So far, she’s raised over $125.

“I know it’s not a lot, but every little bit helps,” she said. “It’s definitely a good cause.”

City’s wastewater dumping prompts fine, lawsuit

Jeffrey Zanker | USFSP
Many of the lines connecting private property to the city’s sewage system need replacing, council member Yolanda Roman says.

USFSP Student Reporter

GULFPORT – When heavy rainfall overwhelmed Gulfport’s antiquated sewage system last year, the city was forced to dump partially treated wastewater into Clam Bayou and surrounding waterways.

That prompted legal action by the state and a federal lawsuit against the city by a coalition of private nonprofit groups.

The state response came from the Department of Environmental Protection, which fined the city $144,000 for illegal dumping.

The federal lawsuit, filed by Suncoast Waterkeeper and two other nonprofits, alleges that the city violated the federal Clean Water Act. Earlier this month, a federal district judge declined the city’s request to dismiss the lawsuit.

Gulfport “is aggressively defending the cases, which is a disappointment,” said Justin Bloom, the executive director for Suncoast Waterkeeper. “We are open to settling.”

The city of St. Petersburg, which also saw its sewage system overwhelmed by the heavy rains, has been sued by the coalition of nonprofits, too. The city was fined $820,000 by the state.

The Clean Water Act, which was enacted in 1972, is designed to regulate dumping by government agencies and private business and protect clean drinking water and the environment. It is administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but nonprofits like Waterkeeper can file civil lawsuits against local governments for alleged violations.

Gulfport has entered into a consent agreement with the state DEP to settle that agency’s case against the city. But Bloom said he doesn’t think that the agreement goes far enough.

“We are trying to come up with some agreement that will be enforceable under the federal court,” Bloom said. “These consent decrees don’t work in the long run.”

The consent agreement came after the FDEP fined the city $144,000 in civil penalties for the waste.

“When enforcement is necessary, the department takes corrective action and uses every tool at its disposal to hold offenders accountable,” said Shannon Herbon, the external affairs coordinator for the DEP. “If regulated entities do not comply, the department does and will take enforcement actions.”

But now Gulfport is asking DEP for permission to use the $144,000 it owes in fines on a pollution prevention program to improve the city’s wastewater infrastructure.

A consent order drafted by City Manager James O’Reilly would give the city permission to invest $127,500 in the program. The city is seeking public feedback before its submits the proposed order to the DEP.

City Council member Yolanda Roman said she hopes the city can use the money in a grant program designed to encourage residents to upgrade their home sewage systems.

Buildings in the city are connected to the city’s wastewater system by so-called “lateral lines.” The grant would help replace many old lateral lines, which sometimes become overburdened during the rainy season.

Lateral lines are owned by the privately property owner, not the city. Replacing them can be expensive, especially if they are old and lengthy.

If the city could provide grants to help offset the cost, Roman said, it would encourage property owners to participate.

In gritty Ward 4, three seek to topple incumbent

Devin Rodriguez | USFSP
Incumbent Michael Fridovich says city spending in his district is proof that he has delivered.

USFSP Student Reporters

GULFPORT – To the outside world, Gulfport is a charming waterfront community with quaint restaurants, popular street festivals, and a mod mayor who tends bar and sings in a rock band.

The south Pinellas town of 12,000 is also home to the Stetson University College of Law, a picturesque marina, and a gated waterfront neighborhood and country club.

And then there’s Ward 4. There’s nothing glamorous about that gritty, northeast quadrant of Gulfport, where some residents feel like out-of-favor relatives at the Thanksgiving dinner table.

They describe themselves as the red-headed stepchild of the city. The neighborhood with an inferiority complex. The home of the 99 percent. The only ward without a catchy nickname like “marina district.”

Michael Fridovich, who has represented Ward 4 on the Gulfport City Council since 2013, says the city has spent $1,520,269 in his district over the last four years. But he has three opponents in the March 14 election, and all three contend Fridovich has not done enough.

There’s Richard Fried (pronounced “freed as in freedom,” he says), a self-proclaimed Bernie Sanders-style activist who once wore an elf costume to a council meeting and appeared at a candidate forum last month in an orange T-shirt and black fedora.

There’s Bobby Reynolds, a military brat and Navy veteran who graduated from Stetson Law and works for a Largo security company. The low-key Reynolds notes that many people “would probably recognize me as the guy walking the boxer (around town). His name is Raiden.”

And there’s Ernest Stone, a former ambulance driver, police dispatcher and Stetson security officer who is now retired. He has lived in Gulfport for 40 years.

No candidate is harder on the incumbent than Stone, who points to photos of broken fences and derelict houses and says, “I just don’t see him (Fridovich) getting anything done.”

And no candidate has a background with more smudges – or an explanation more unusual – than Stone.

* * *   * * *   * * *

Devin Rodriguez | USFSP
No candidate is harder on the incumbent than 40-year resident Ernest Stone.

According to Pinellas County court records, Stone, 69, had several brushes with the law in the 1980s and 1990s. They included arrests for disorderly intoxication and resisting arrest without violence in 1980 (which resulted in six months’ probation and a fine) and DUI and misdemeanor criminal mischief in 1985 (10 days in jail, six months’ probation and a fine).

He was also arrested – but not prosecuted – on charges of misdemeanor spouse battery and aggravated assault in 1990 and misdemeanor domestic-related assault in 1995.

When Stone was asked about his record during an interview last month, his wife, Pamela Ann Stone, broke into the conversation.

“For most of my life, I have suffered from bipolar illness,” she said. “I’ve struck my children, I’ve struck my husband, and Ern took the fall when the police were called. He didn’t want the mother of his children to have that on my record.”

The Stones have two sons, one a police commander in Gulfport and the other a security officer at Tyrone Square Mall. Mrs. Stone also has two other children, one of whom Stone helped raise.

In two interviews, Mrs. Stone, 68, said she has publicly acknowledged her mental illness. But she said this is the first time she has identified it as bipolar disorder – a manic depressive illness that can cause unpredictable changes in mood and behavior – and described its impact on her husband and family.

She and Ernest have been married for 46 years. At times during the marriage, “I was difficult, but he never hit me,” said Mrs. Stone. “If he would have hit me, I would have killed him.”

According to court records, Mrs. Stone was charged with misdemeanor battery in 1987, felony aggravated assault in 1995 and domestic battery in 1997. Two of the incidents involved one of her sons; the third involved a neighbor, she said. All three charges were dropped.

Mrs. Stone said she is now under the care of a psychiatrist and on medications that have dramatically improved her life.

It is liberating to talk about her illness now, she said. She and her family have a better understanding of things, she said, and she wants others to know how supportive her husband has been.

“I’m a big girl now and can face it,” she said. “I don’t want him (her husband) dragged through the mud when he stood by me all this time … I am very pleased with the person I am today, and I thank Ern for that.”

Ernest Stone’s boss at Stetson was its chief of public safety, Don W. Howard. The school was aware of Stone’s record when it hired him as a security officer, Howard said.

“We all make mistakes and we can’t allow our mistakes to define us,” said Howard. He called Stone “a truly decent Christian man” with “a deep and abiding love for this community.”

* * *   * * *   * * *

As the campaign enters its final days, the incumbent – Fridovich – seems well-positioned for a strong showing.

He has been on the council and a fixture at community events for four years. His campaign signs dot the district, and he has been endorsed by Mayor Sam Henderson and former Mayors Michael Yakes and Yvonne Johnson.

Fridovich, 69, is a combat veteran of the Vietnam War and graduate of Georgia State University. He draws income from Social Security and disability payments and a part-time job as a telephone salesman.

In his campaign, he stresses the $1,520,269 he says the city has spent in Ward 4 during his four years in office – proof that he has delivered.

“Anyone who says that he hasn’t done anything for Ward 4 hasn’t been paying attention at the council meetings,” said Henderson.

But Reynolds, 49, disputes that positive assessment of the incumbent. He says Fridovich stepped it up only after deciding to seek a third term.

Exhibit A, said Reynolds, is the city park near his home. Improvements there are finally under way, Reynolds said, but “they should’ve been done earlier.”

Devin Rodriguez | USFSP
Ward 4 needs a forceful advocate, not a “tweaking,” says Bobby Reynolds.

“Ward 4 needs help,” Reynolds told the Gabber, a weekly newspaper that serves Gulfport. “It doesn’t need ‘tweaking.’ It doesn’t need a ‘team player.’ It needs someone who will truly advocate for its residents.”

He calls for consistent code enforcement, improvements in infrastructure, vigilance on spending and better communication between City Hall and the people it serves.

Reynolds, a Navy veteran, has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a law degree from Stetson. He and his wife have three small children.

Stone, a retiree and 40-year resident of Gulfport, says he has the time and experience to represent Ward 4 effectively.

“Serving the People” is his campaign pledge. He calls for improving the city’s infrastructure, consistent enforcement of codes, careful spending, and improved parking options along the beachfront.

The police department should use its patrol boat more often, he said, and the city should add another code enforcement officer.

“I’ve got ears; I listen. I’ve got a mouth; I talk,” he said. “If you’ve got a problem, then bring it to me.”

Devin Rodriguez | USFSP
Richard Fried says he would bring Bernie Sanders-style activism to the council.

Fried, 51, the most colorful candidate in the field, appears to face the longest odds.

The election of Donald Trump helped propel him into the race, said Fried, who calls himself “a Bernie Sanders kind of guy.”

“I’ve elected to run (for office), not protest,” he said.

He lists his duplex and a job at a St. Petersburg assisted living facility as his sources of income. He said he has attended Pinellas Technical College, the University of Southern Maine, Florida International University and Miami Dade College.

Fried calls for solar power on all city buildings, tighter oversight on city spending and staff, and more authority for the office of mayor, which is a largely ceremonial position.

Fried frequently speaks at City Council meetings, but Mayor Henderson said some of his remarks – while passionate – are not factual. “His comments at the podium make me think he is unqualified,” Henderson said.

* * *   * * *   * * *

As president of the Gulfport Democratic Club and a former unsuccessful council candidate in another ward, April Thanos follows community politics closely. She says the four-way competition in Ward 4 is good for the city.

“It makes people talk about things and think about things,” she said.

When she moved to town, she was warned not to live in Ward 4, Thanos said, and it does seem to have more petty theft than other neighborhoods.

But the housing stock in Ward 4 is “not that different” from other neighborhoods, she said, and she sees “people coming in and fixing things up very rapidly.”

The City Council and city administration have not always treated Ward 4 as well as other districts, Thanos said, and the people who live there “need to stand up for themselves.”

That goes, she said, for their council member, too.

Information from the Gabber, a community weekly that serves Gulfport, was used in this report.

Colorful candidates seek two Gulfport council seats

USFSP Student Reporters

GULFPORT – When voters go to the polls on March 14, they will decide whether to reward two City Council incumbents with another two-year term.

One of the incumbents has drawn token opposition. The other has drawn a crowd.

Linda Bailey filed paperwork to run in Ward 2 in November, then essentially disappeared.

She did not attend two candidate forums and did not respond to questionnaires that the Tampa Bay Times and a community weekly paper sent to all candidates. In an interview, she said she is running just to give people “another name” on the ballot.

That suggests clear sailing for incumbent Christine Anne Brown, a community activist and teacher who is seeking a third term in Ward 2, which covers the southeast quarter of the city.

In Ward 4, however, incumbent Michael Fridovich has three active opponents. They all criticize him for poorly representing the district, which stretches across the city’s northeast quadrant.

Although candidates must live in the districts they seek to represent, voting in City Council races is citywide. The council sets policy and the annual budget for the city, but day-to-day management belongs to a city manager appointed by the council.

Here’s what you need to know about the six candidates:

Ward 2

Devin Rodriguez | USFSP
Christine Anne Brown

Christine Anne Brown (incumbent)

In her campaign, Brown stresses her leadership and community involvement, calling herself “enthusiastic about the future, compassionate about the issues.”

Her husband is a descendant of a founding Gulfport family, and her community activism includes two decades at the Gulfport Historical Society, where she is now chairperson.

Brown, 56, a longtime math teacher at Boca Ciega High School, has a bachelor’s degree from Eckerd College, a teacher certificate from the University of South Florida in Tampa and a master’s from the University of Florida.

She lost campaigns for the City Council in 2005 and 2007, but ran unopposed for the Ward 2 seat in 2013 and 2015.

She ticks off the strides the city has made – in sewers, streets and parks and along the waterfront – and projects that are in the works, like a mooring field along the waterfront and improvements to Shore Boulevard.

“I find the hardest part of all the great stuff that’s coming is that it takes so long,” she said. “I didn’t know the wheels of city government churn so slow.”

She also said she would rather postpone or cancel a project than raise fees or the property tax.

Devin Rodriguez | USFSP
Linda Bailey

Linda Bailey

Not much is known about the elusive candidate who filed papers to challenge Brown, then dropped out of sight.

Bailey is 41. She said she moved here from Virginia a year ago, when she and her husband built a big house on 54th Street S. She identifies as a Republican and her email address has the words “LindaKTrump.”

In her filing papers, she says her husband is her sole source of income and his principal business activity is sales.

She used to be a tennis instructor and still plays a lot of tennis and pickleball, a cross between tennis and badminton that is played with a paddle and plastic ball with holes in it.

In an interview, Bailey acknowledged she is an unconventional candidate. “To be honest, I’m just putting my name (on the ballot) as another name” to vote for, she said.

She has no platform, she said, but if she wins she will develop one. “I plan to go around talking to people, as far as the community, to see what they want.”

Bailey also said she does interior design work and would like to help beautify the city.

“I want to overhaul what Gulfport needs; there are a lot of ugly homes,” she said. “I’d love to go through the neighborhood and put my vision on it.”

Ward 4

Devin Rodriguez | USFSP
Michael Fridovich

Michael Fridovich (incumbent)

This is the first time Fridovich, 69, has drawn opposition. He ran unopposed in 2013 and 2015.

A combat veteran of the Vietnam War who has lived in Gulfport for seven years, Fridovich said his income comes from Social Security and disability payments and a part-time job as a telephone salesman for a cigar company. He and a business partner are starting a small technology company, he said.

“I’m not ready to retire (from politics) and there are things I want to see get done,” said Fridovich, who has a bachelor’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State University.

He said he is aware that some residents of Ward 4 consider it the red-headed stepchild of the city and that his three opponents contend he has not done enough for the district. He doesn’t buy it.

During his four years on the council, he said, the city has spent $1,520,269 in Ward 4. That spending includes improvements to Tomlinson Park, alley and road work, sidewalk replacement and storm water repairs.

He has endorsements from Mayor Sam Henderson and former Mayors Michael Yakes and Yvonne Johnson, he said.

If re-elected, he hopes to continue efforts to establish a mooring field along the waterfront, improve the city’s infrastructure and make government buildings more energy efficient.
His involvement in the community gives him an edge over his opponents, Fridovich said.

“I work with the constituents,” he said. “People don’t endorse you because you’re a nice person, and yard signs don’t vote.”

Devin Rodriguez | USFSP
Richard Fried

Richard Fried

Richard Fried, 51, says he got lost in Gulfport on his way to Tampa and decided to stay.

“I had a feeling that this was it,” he said. “There’s a certain energy – a funkiness – to Gulfport.”

The self-styled progressive has lived in Gulfport for nearly 10 years. He decided to make his first foray into local politics after Donald Trump was elected president.

“I’ve elected to run (for office), not protest,” he said. “I’ll do my bit at the local level.”

In campaign filings, he lists his duplex and job as a medical technician at a St. Petersburg assisted living facility as his sources of income. He worked previously in the fast print business and retail pet food industry, he said.

He said he has attended Pinellas Technical College, the University of Southern Maine, Florida International University and Miami Dade College and studied health care, communication theory, hospitality management and liberal arts.

Fried, who describes himself as a “Bernie Sanders kind of guy,” is a former activist and street performer who brings a certain theatricality to his campaign. He has drawn attention by wearing an elf costume to a City Council meeting and reading from “Horton Hears a Who” by Dr. Seuss.

Fried said one of the main issues he wants to address is tenant rights for the people who live in an apartment building that would be displaced under a proposal to put a Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through on the southwest corner of 56th Street S and Gulfport Boulevard.

Asked how he’s different from Fridovich, Fried said, “I’m less establishment, I think. If I have an opinion about something, I’m going to tell you no matter who you are.”

Fried does not seem well-versed on city issues, however.

“His comments at the podium (at City Council meetings) make me think he is unqualified,” said Mayor Henderson. “A lot of the things he’s stated … are impassioned but have no basis in fact.”

Devin Rodriguez | USFSP
Bobby Reynolds

Bobby Reynolds

Reynolds’ campaign grew out of his concerns about the park near his home.

Tomlinson Park, at 54th Street S and 19th Avenue, is a jewel of Ward 4. But a skate park there was closed by the city, and Reynolds contends that more than $200,000 in improvements in playground and fitness equipment was slow to arrive.

“The plans have been in the works for a while, but that’s not the issue,” said Reynolds, 49. “They should’ve been done earlier.”

He contends that Fridovich didn’t begin to stress improvements in Ward 4 until he decided to seek re-election.

“Ward 4 needs help,” he told the Gabber, a weekly newspaper that serves Gulfport. “It doesn’t need ‘tweaking.’ It doesn’t need a ‘team player.’ It needs someone who will truly advocate for its residents.”

If elected, Reynolds said, he would speak up for his ward during budget meetings. His ideas for Gulfport include increased beautification efforts, speeding up sewer system repairs and improving recreation opportunities.

Reynolds, a self-described military brat as a boy, spent six years in the Navy. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a law degree from Stetson.

He is married with three young children and works for a Largo security firm. He also runs a virtual law practice from his home. He has lived in Gulfport for 11 years.

Devin Rodriguez | USFSP
Ernest Stone

Ernest Stone

No candidate has lived in Gulfport longer than Stone, a resident for 40 years.

He settled in the community a couple of years after graduating from high school in Jacksonville. Over the years, he drove an ambulance, served as a dispatcher for the Largo Police Department and worked as a security officer at Stetson University College of Law. In retirement now, he lists Social Security as his source of income.

Stone, 69, who ran unsuccessfully for the council in 1985, 1999 and 2001, said he got into the race out of frustration with the performance of Fridovich, the incumbent.

“I just don’t see him getting anything done,” Stone said, pointing to photos of broken fences  and derelict houses. “There’s been a lot of infrastructure problems and I don’t want to see us spending our money stupidly.”

Stone said he wants to step up the city’s code enforcement and add another officer to respond to complaints. He also wants to see the police department utilize its patrol boat more often.

“I’ve got ears; I listen,” he told voters in a recent meeting. “I’ve got a mouth; I talk. If you’ve got a problem, then bring it to me.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, Stone had several brushes with the law, according to Pinellas County court records. In 1980, he was sentenced to six months’ probation and a fine after arrests for disorderly intoxication and resisting arrest without violence, and in 1985 he got 10 days in jail, six months’ probation and a fine after arrests for DUI and misdemeanor criminal mischief.

Stone acknowledges problems in the past, and Don W. Howard, the public safety chief at Stetson, said he was aware of them when the school hired Stone as a security officer.

“We all make mistakes, and we can’t allow our mistakes to define us,” said Howard. Stone, who worked at Stetson for nine years, “is a truly decent Christian man who has a tremendous sense of community and family,” Howard said.

Information from the Gabber, a weekly newspaper that serves Gulfport, was used in this report.

A dash of color for city’s drab buildings?

Katherine Wilcox | USFSP Gary King of King Marine Engineering says he would welcome a mural on his building at the corner of 49th Street S and Ninth Avenue.
Katherine Wilcox | USFSP
Gary King of King Marine Engineering says he would welcome a mural on his building at the corner of 49th Street S and Ninth Avenue.

USFSP Student Reporter

GULFPORT – Gulfport has a thriving arts community, just like St. Petersburg. It has arts festivals, like St. Petersburg. And it has regular art walks that feature the work of local artists, like St. Petersburg.

So why doesn’t Gulfport have large, colorful murals adorning the exterior walls of some of its drab buildings? St. Petersburg does.

That’s what Rosalie “Roz” Barbieri, a longtime resident and arts advocate, wants to know.

Twice in recent months, Barbieri has appealed to the Gulfport City Council for help in touching up the city’s look.

“We’re an artsy community, a community of color, so why not make it an endeavor to have murals in the city?” asked Barbieri. “I have a list of addresses along 49th Street and also a list of all the artists who participated in St. Petersburg, and I’d like to go forward with it.”

Gulfport council members sounded supportive, but indicated they’re not sure exactly what they could do to help.

“I think the murals (in St. Petersburg) are beautiful, but I don’t know what that has to do with me,” said council member Christine Brown. “The murals will be on private buildings.  I don’t understand what Roz wants us to do, but we’ll support her because I think it’s a good idea.”

Vice Mayor Michael Fridovich suggested that the council could encourage the owners of buildings to let street artists convert their dingy exteriors into tapestries of colorful images.

“We, as the City Council, can say, ‘We encourage you if you have the opportunity’ or, ‘Let’s get colorful’ or something,” said Fridovich.

But perhaps the council could do more.

Wayne Atherholt, director of cultural affairs for the city of St. Petersburg, said the city gave $25,000 in seed money to the art activists who orchestrated an impressive effort last fall to paint large, colorful murals along the city’s Central Avenue corridor.

The SHINE Mural Festival was coordinated by Leon Bedore, a mural artist known as Tes One. He had the help of the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance, volunteers and art-friendly businesses that donated marketing, paint, lodging and meals to the artists.

In recent years, murals – also called street art – have become fixtures in cities around the world.

Philadelphia has a mural arts program and more than 3,000 murals, according to USA Today, and the street art in New York City, Los Angeles and Miami has become a point of civic pride and a draw for tourism.

Atherholt, who lives in Gulfport, said 49th street would be a good place for murals, noting that the community collaboration would be great for Gulfport and St. Petersburg.

There are two ways to get the project started, said Atherholt.  There’s the informal way, which is what the Gulfport council members proposed to do by encouraging property owners. And there’s the formal way.

“The structured, government sort of way would be to have the City Council allocate money to the project, put a call out to artists, and then come up with a proposal for the property owners (of buildings) to approve or reject,” he said.

Some Gulfport residents sound receptive. Even the city’s Teen Council has put plans together to put murals on some community spots in the past.

“We had a plan and an artist ready to paint a mural on the (public) beach bathrooms,” said Elizabeth Brown-Worthington, former chair of the Teen Council, “but the (city) council wanted to relocate those bathrooms at the time so it never went through.”

Katherine Wilcox | USFSP Margaret Tober of Gulfport Neighbors says the building beside the South Georgia Meat Market at 49th Street S and 16th Avenue has blank walls that could use some sprucing up.
Katherine Wilcox | USFSP
Margaret Tober of Gulfport Neighbors says the building beside the South Georgia Meat Market at 49th Street S and 16th Avenue has blank walls that could use some sprucing up.

Cities that have murals have found that they tend to discourage the graffiti that often mars building exteriors.

In St. Petersburg, so-called “graffiti tags” – the scribbled signature of artists who illegally decorate anything from alley walls to dumpsters – have gone down dramatically since murals starting popping up downtown.

Where would murals go in Gulfport?

Its downtown district is much smaller than St. Petersburg’s.  The businesses that would likely participate in the project have limited space on their exterior walls. And many businesses don’t own the buildings they occupy.

Jay Clark, a longtime employee at the Low Tide Kava Bar at 2902 Beach Blvd. S, said it might be an extra hoop to jump through, but the bar’s landlord has been receptive to community art projects.

“When we first opened this place we invited a load of people to come paint on the walls,” said Clark. “So if we asked to paint something big on the outside of it, he would probably be pretty cool about it.”

Low Tide has a half-finished mural on the back wall inside the bar, which Clark said should be finished soon.  He said he hopes it sparks a trend among other shops inside the Art Village Courtyard.

However, Barbieri seemed to be focused on another part of Gulfport – the tired looking stretch of 49th Street S that separates Gulfport and St. Petersburg.

Margaret Tober of the Gulfport Neighbors civic group said a “collaboration between the two cities would be a welcome experience” – especially after the friction that arose last August when St. Petersburg dumped raw sewage into Clam Bayou after heavy rains overwhelmed its sewer system.

Tober suggested the businesses at 49th Street S and 14th Avenue would be a good starting point for the project. “I would love to see a mural on that dirty wall that covers those businesses.”

Another building on 49th Street with potential would be King Marine Engineering off Ninth Avenue. Gary King, the business and property owner, expressed support for the idea.

“I think anything that adds artistic value to an area is extremely valuable for a multitude of reasons,” he said. “I love the art district downtown; I know people with murals on their buildings (in St. Petersburg). I’m 100 percent in favor.”

King said his building, a World War II airplane hangar that is 2 stories tall and 55 feet long, is “gigantic” and “basically a canvas.” If he were presented with an artist and an idea, he said, he would participate.

Other buildings down 49th Street that have large, blank walls or storefronts that could serve as a canvas are the South Georgia Meat Market off 16th Avenue, the Quick Stop Beer and Wine complex off 15th Avenue, and empty buildings nearby.