Lithia Native’s Cracker Town Gives Visitors Taste of Florida’s History

Architect, antiques collector, educator, and Lithia native Billy Wayne Allen is no ordinary 70-year-old. He has spent the past four years building a piece of Florida history with his own hands, all to preserve a dying lifestyle. His historic Cracker Town sits on the border of his yard, complete with a church, house, meal house, general store, dining pavilion, blacksmith shop, and even an outhouse.

“It’s more or less a love offering so people who are coming up nowadays can see how their grandparents and great-grandparents lived.” Allen said.

Allen’s family says this handmade Cracker Town is a reflection of Allen.

“There’s nothing plastic about him,” his sister Gerry said. “What you see is what you get. If the president were to drive up here right now, he’d be the same.”

“He’s got a real big heart for people,” his sister Betty said. “When he started building this place he didn’t know when to stop.”

Linda Allen, Billy’s wife, recalls that the project immediately took hold of her husband when it first began.

“Some people that own a saw mill across the woods from us gave him some free lumber. And he didn’t know what he was going to do with it. He said, ‘I’m just gonna build a little house out there,’ but it kept getting bigger and bigger.”

She, too, believes that the Cracker Town encompasses Billy Allen’s character.

“As they say, when he was born I truly believe they threw away the mold. Because every day of my life he says something different that surprises me that I have never heard before,” Linda said.

Those interested in visiting Billy and Linda to witness Florida’s history can call 813-758-4570 to schedule.

Future of Tampa Bay’s estuaries will be decided in the USF area

Just a few miles from the USF campus, a careful balancing act between the upper and lower portions of the dam in the Hillsborough Reservoir could decide the future of Tampa Bay’s ecosystem.

Nearly 80 percent of Hillsborough county water bodies are polluted beyond a threshold of acceptable contamination and have been classified as “impaired,” meaning local agencies have a legal obligation to keep an eye on pollution and the environment pursuant to the standards in the Clean Water Act.

But with water management agencies stretched thin, crucial reports on projects, like the efficacy of a hotly debated minimum flow requirement for the lower Hillsborough River, are behind schedule trying to keep up with enforcement and also reporting on urbanity’s impacts on the ecosystem.

Continue reading “Future of Tampa Bay’s estuaries will be decided in the USF area”

Photo Gallery: Anclote Key Preserve State Park offers family their first seaside camping experience

Anclote Key Preserve State Park is a group of four islands near Tarpon Springs that has a campsite for visitors.

The Tavo family, just beginning their 2015 spring break, camped on the beach of one of the islands, Anclote Key. Some of the family had been camping before, but never on an island right near the water.

The family rented a boat to get to the island and planned to stay for one night.

Camping is allowed only on the north end of the island. Other visitors  can anchor their boats and spend time in the water near the island.

The Tavo family was excited for the adventure of the day– and they hoped to steer clear of the raccoons that are known to pester campers.

If any USF students are looking for a weekend getaway, Anclote Key Preserve State Park is an option.

Students can rent tents and other camping gear from campus recreation for low prices.

Photo gallery: Young pastor becomes new children’s leader at Bethel Assembly of God

Andrew Tedder has been the children’s pastor at Bethel Assembly of God since the beginning of March. His second Sunday as pastor, he put new plans in place for the children’s program and took over the announcements for the adult service. His passion is teaching youth to love church and God.

Tampa clothing designer, USF grad plans launch of bikini and yoga pants line in summer

The Tampa Bay area has a new clothing company opening this summer. Business woman and clothing designer Christian Mikel plans to launch her bikini and yoga pants line.

The Tampa native developed her line, Christian Mikel Inc., from the ground up on her own.

“My first step was to get a business license, so that way I looked credible and manufacturers would want to talk to me and give me their time,” said CEO Mikel. “Then, after that, I learned that I had to not only make my designs, but also make computer-formatted designs. So, I learned how to use Photoshop and Illustrator.”

Mikel aspires to open a store in Tampa, but in the meantime will launch her website this summer.

“Currently, I’m working on getting my samples back and hopefully release this summer my bathing suit and yoga pant line,” Mikel said. “I’ve been learning how to set up my website so my website is ready to go. And once I get all the products in, we’re going to do our photo shoots with our models. Then, we’ll pick the photos we want and post them on our website and basically, we’re in business and we’re ready to go.”

Mikel graduated from the University of South Florida with a degree in biomedical sciences. However, her passion has always been in the arts.

“My daughter has always been interested in painting, and the arts and making things with her hands,” said Terri Corson, Mikel’s mother. “She’s extremely creative and, although she had a degree in the sciences, her real passion was on how things should be put together.”

After launching her yoga pants and swimwear line, Mikel wants to create and design her own jewelry line to add to her fashion empire.

Tarpon Spring’s Greek community enjoys annual dive for crosses to celebrate Epiphany

The Greek community in Tarpon Springs celebrates the Epiphany annually Jan. 5.

“Epiphany is a holiday that Orthodox (Greeks) celebrate to honor the baptism of Jesus Christ,” said Viola Kalouris, mother of one of the divers.

“We have the archbishop come and he tosses a cross into the water, and we all jump in after it,” Gregory Kalouris said.

While the community and other spectators come out to watch the ceremonious diving to recover the cross, that is not all that goes into the tradition of Epiphany.

The young men who will be diving  gather at the church to prepare about a month before the event. The teens learn about the tradition of Epiphany from the church and work together to build the boats used to get them out into the water.

“When we’re all working together, organizing the Epiphany, getting the boats together, all jumping in together — it’s really a bonding experience for all the young men,” Gregory Kalouris said.

Next year is Gregory Kalouris’ last year to dive. While he wants to be the one to recover the cross, he also believes, along with the others, that the person who gets the cross is divinely predetermined.

All are welcomed and encouraged to come out to Tarpon Springs to witness the traditional cross diving for the annual Epiphany.

Tampa Bay Jazz Association reaches out to community

Dwayne White is the education and scholarship director for the Al Downing Tampa Bay Jazz Association. He has held the position for the last several years, but jazz has been an integral part of his life since he was a child.

“I grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana,” White said. “The music is just in the air.”

When he moved to Tampa, he wanted to stay involved in the music. Joining the Al Downing association gave White more than just the opportunity to keep playing his horn.

“We support jazz; we educate people about the music. We just broaden people’s knowledge and appreciation for the music,” White said.

Learning from and listening to the pros playing jazz when he was a boy fostered White’s deep-rooted love for music. Today, he still recognizes the importance of introducing young people to professional musicians.

“We have something called the Jazz in Schools program where we go into elementary, middle and high schools and we bring live jazz musicians into the classroom setting,” White said.

White believes the state of jazz is strong in the Tampa area. He hopes the freedom of expression in jazz will keep the genre alive forever.

Donations help USF assistant professor raise money to adopt her son

Christa Haring, a research assistant professor at the University of South Florida, is a new mom. Last year, she adopted her son, Carter, who was born with Down syndrome and a cleft palate. To Haring, he’s perfect.

“People with Down syndrome are guileless,” she said.

Carter’s adoption story is full of twists, turns, and a few miracles too. In just over 60 hours, friends and family donated the $12,000 needed for the cost of his adoption. From all over the country, 587 people rallied to make it happen and, ironically, Haring was the last to know.

“It just happened in a way we didn’t expect,” Haring said. “The second night we were in the hospital, we had $12,000 and we needed $18,000. On the last night—the night the money was due — people were texting me things like, ‘congratulations, congratulations!’ And I just sat there sobbing.”

Perhaps it does take a village, as the old saying goes. Haring has people around her giving unyielding support every day, including those she works with at USF.

“I think that Carter was never, ever, ever supposed to belong to one person, and I believe that with all my heart.” she said. “He has multiple moms and siblings. Carter’s story is just about people who saw something bigger than themselves and saw something better than all of us.”

Carter will have four surgeries over the next five years to help repair his cleft palate. Haring will have a whole army supporting his recovery after each operation. Just like a USF Bull, Carter is strong, brave, and, above all else, adored by his many fans.


Video: Christopher Hethcox turns lifelong passion for cheerleading into remarkable career

TRINITY — As an aspiring male cheerleading coach, Christopher Hethcox seemingly had the odds stacked against him early in life.

“The stigma of being a male cheerleader was something that was rough in the rural parts of Alabama,” Hethcox said.

But Hethcox didn’t let it bring him down. At age 13, Hethcox knew he had a passion for tumbling and gymnastics.

Twenty-two years later, Hethcox has turned that passion into a career as an instructor with All-Star Cheerleading at the Suncoast Gymnastics Academy in Odessa.

Though the profession does not necessarily have a large salary, Hethcox said he isn’t in it for the money — he just wants to help his athletes grow.

“I think I love the process of the training, performing, watching the development over the year of an athlete that’s had this place where they started,” Hethcox said.  “And then, where they end up.”

Hethcox coaches multiple levels of cheerleading with All-Star Cheerleading and has won multiple championships.

Competing at that level, Hethcox said,  is something that can give competitors butterflies. But for him, it’s all about keeping his team calm.

Mark Sczcepanik, whose daughter is coached by Hethcox, described him as passionate and driven.

“Coach Chris has done an incredible job with our daughter,” Sczcepanik said. “She went from never cheering ever six months ago to just doing an incredible job, thanks to his fine coaching.”

Hethcox doesn’t need praise, though. He just wants it to be about the kids.

“I want them to become sisters that they would do anything for each other,” Hethcox said.

Machine Gun America in Kissimmee allows youths, adults to operate weapons

KISSIMMEE – Less than an hour from Tampa, a new attraction has opened, and it seems to be the most controversial of them all. At Machine Gun America, almost anyone older than 13 can shoot semi-automatic, and anyone over 15 can shoot fully automatic machine guns.

“A lot of that decision is made by the range safety officer on the range,”said Scott Brian, director of range operations. “If they feel that they can’t handle it, can’t safely control it, we’ll kind of switch it up to something that they can handle but still have a good time at the same time.”

Some disagree with allowing youths to operate weapons. However, a University of South Florida associate professor of psychology has another perspective.

“You would want a kid to be in a supervised environment if they are going to be learning how to use weapons,” said Joe Vandello.

According to Brian, all of the range safety officers at Machine Gun America have law-enforcement or military backgrounds. The range safety officer handles the weapon at all times until the customer is in full safety gear, inside the range and ready to shoot.

Machine Gun America held its grand opening  Feb. 7.


Video: High school hockey garnering support around Tampa Bay

Ice hockey has become one of the fastest growing high school sports in the Tampa Bay area.

There are 12 teams in the Florida High School Hockey Association’s Lightning Conference, which includes schools from across the region.

Ed de la Paz, president of the conference, attributes much of its recent success to the support of the National Hockey League’s Tampa Bay Lightning.

“The Lightning have been wonderful,” de la Paz said. “(They’re) really giving us that hockey perspective.”

Dan Bubley, head coach at Steinbrenner High in Lutz, which competes in the Lightning Conference, has been coaching in Florida for more than 12 years.

At first, Bubley said, it was difficult to find players.

“We used to have to go and drive around the Northdale area to find kids who skated on rollerblades,” he said.

Things have improved. Bubley predicted they will have up to 50 kids trying out for one team before the season starts.

“With all due respect, I think you have to recognize what we are: a non-traditional sport in a sunshine state,” Bubley said.

Bubley said he believes the next step is for the sport to become sanctioned, or “soft sanctioned,” as he put it, by the Florida High School Athletic Association, which sets the guidelines as the governing body for high school sports in the state.

For game times and more information about the FHSHA, visit Select games are also televised on Bright House Sports Network, Ch. 47.


Tarpon Springs church commemorates annual Epiphany celebration


Tarpon Springs is not your typical town. Known for its world-famous Sponge Docks, Tarpon harbors the largest Greek community within the U.S.

“In Tarpon Springs, we’re basically one big Greek family; we grew up together, go to church together, we fight and we argue, but at the end of the day, we all end up partying together,” Tarpon resident Kosta Pstefelis said.

In the heart of Tarpon Springs lies the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, which commemorates the annual Epiphany celebration.

Pstefelis calls it “our way of showing off Greek Orthodoxy to the world.”

Pstefelis and fellow resident Niko Mahairas were two of the 50 teens to dive for the cross at this year’s event.

“It’s something everyone should experience, religious or not. The event is always a good time for everyone,” Mahairas said.

Celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, 50 Greek boys, ages 16 through 18, dive into the water in hopes of retrieving a cross. Retrieval of the cross signifies a year of good luck for that individual.

“Everyone wants to be the kid that catches the cross,” Pstefelis said.

Luckily, this year he was able to do just that, describing it as a “once in a lifetime experience, something my family needed.”

Tampa-area Buddhist temple offers authentic Thai market

Add a new outing to your Sunday routine. The Wat Tampa, a Buddhist Thai temple, hosts its Sunday market each week, offering a variety of authentic Thai foods along with a wide selection of fresh produce and plants.

“There’s a little bit of everything for you to enjoy here,” said Terry Stephens, one of the volunteers. “They have plants and vegetables here, all kinds of fruits.”

The market also serves free coffee and tea. The temple volunteers prepare the Thai food themselves, and you’re guaranteed to never leave hungry.

“People love to come here because they love the food, and it’s cheap,”said Malai Suttikul, a volunteer.

Most of the food only costs about $5 a serving, and all proceeds are used to maintain the temple and market.

The Sunday Market started in 1993 with two tables. Now, the market flourishes with about 30 tables, a garden of potted plants and flowers, and tents offering different foods, such as fried chicken.

In 2011, the market added a seawall and benches for relaxing beside the Palm River.

The Sunday Market is open from 9:30 a.m.- 1 p.m. and is located at 5306 Palm River Rd.

Downtown New Port Richey Art Gallery showcases local talent

Bonnie Bratby-Carey is doing something that not many people get to do. She is living her dream as the art director at the Downtown New Port Richey Art Gallery.

“The Gallery has been open since 2003,” Bratby-Carey said. “For a number of years, it was called the Progress Energy Art Gallery. After they were no longer involved with The Gallery, we changed the name and the branding to the Downtown New Port Richey Art Gallery.”

Members of the community know it simply as “The Gallery.” Jose Cardenas is an art collector that spends half of his time here in Florida and the other half in his hometown of Houston.

“I did my search and found this little jewel, like Bonnie the art director calls it,” Cardenas said. “I was attracted to it because it exposes all these local artists that want to tell their (stories) about their hometown.”

This month’s exhibit, “Florida: Adventures in Paradise,” showcases artwork that features the beautiful scenes and landscapes of Florida.

“We really started the year off with a bang,” Bratby-Carey said. “This exhibit has been enormously popular with the public.”

Patrons like Cardenas have come to love the monthly themed exhibits. They are constantly coming back to see what The Gallery has to offer.

“I bought from Patricia Watt, a local artist,” Cardenas said. “I’m actually really excited about hanging these pieces in my house and just having guests over and showing them [that] this is the local art that we have here.”

The Gallery also offers poetry readings, art workshops and other events to encourage community involvement.

Partiers don pirate costumes, celebrate history during Tampa’s Gasparilla parade

The Gasparilla Pirate Festival, Tampa’s yearly parade, takes place in late January and is hosted by Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla and the city of Tampa.

According to legend, Gasparilla was a mythical Spanish pirate captain who operated in Southwest Florida. The event is considered a tradition to the area, yet not everyone knows about it or attends.

“I’m really excited about it, because out of the four years that I’ve been here at the University of South Florida, I have not participated in the Tampa historical event of Gasparilla,” Reggie Brown, former USF student and Broward County resident, said before this year’s celebration.

Gasparilla holds a reputation for the immense amount of alcohol provided, but it is also looked at as a fairy tale parade. Celebrants dressed as pirates are celebrated as royalty and flaunt their costumes in the streets.

In the past, public intoxication has been one of the only issues the public faced with the parade. Many didn’t expect the same problem this year due to the high level of security being provided.

The parade is full of “krewes,” or members of the same float, who share many of the same things in common. Together, the krewes prepare months in advance for the day. Most krewes consider themselves different from the rest.

“We believe that every day should be cherished, hence why our motto is seize the moment,” said Claudia White, member of The Krewe of Ann Jeffrey. “We’re not like other krewes; we actually enjoy the moment.”

Regardless of the reasons people come out to celebrate, Gasparilla is one of the largest parades in Florida and is constantly looking to expand.


MOSI Mess Fests combine science, crafts

Science gets an art-themed makeover at this month’s Mess Fest, hosted by the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI). Hands-on stations such as paint bottle pendulums, paint balloon slingshots and marble painting are all designed to teach children scientific concepts while allowing them to get messy and have fun. Media Relations Specialist Megan Haskins says the event is a creative way to reach these children.

“Those kids may block that information out in schools, but here they’re getting their hands in it, and they’re really starting to enjoy and learn about science,” Haskins said.

Sara Turner, MOSI director of guest experience and orchestrator of Mess Fest, says the future of the event is bright.

“I want bigger explosions, bigger messes. I want people to know, like, when you think of MOSI you think of Mess Fest,” Turner said.

Turner relies on her science army known as the S.T.E.A.M (Science. Technology. Engineering. Art. Math) Punks to make Mess Fest run smoothly.

S.T.E.A.M. Punk Trey Poulos says that a S.T.E.A.M. Punk’s duty “is to bring science alive” for the children and families in attendance.

Throughout the afternoon, Turner organizes and hosts science shows that use materials too dangerous for children’s stations but too interesting to leave out of Mess Fest. These shows use science to make dish soap bubbles full of liquid nitrogen, turn Mentos and Coke into rockets, mix corn starch and water into slime, and conduct experiments with dry ice.

MOSI plans to hold its next Mess Fest Saturday, March 14, starting at 11 a.m., with a theme of Pi Day and Albert Einstein’s birthday. The Mess Fest is included in museum admission.

Pasco schools superintendent: Asbestos forces closure of historic Moore-Mickens Education Center

DADE CITY- Two years after the first attempt to close down Moore-Mickens Education Center, Superintendent of Pasco County schools Kurt Browning is determined to follow through with these plans in 2015.

“The situation has changed,” Browning said. “The facts have changed, I am convinced. I said it two years ago; I’ll say it today: When you have a facility that old and there is the presence of asbestos in that facility, I’ve got mama students, I’ve got new babies, I’ve got staff, administration and teachers, and every time they go to move a ceiling tile or drill a hole in the wall, we run the risk of introducing asbestos into the environment.”

Opened in the late 1930s, the Moore-Mickens Education Center was one of the first schools for black children in that community.

“Moore-Mickens Education Center was begun by a man in the Dade City community, Mr. Moore, although he was not himself educated,” said Nancy Guss,principal of Moore-Mickens. “He wanted to bring education to the black community of Dade City. This is the memory of the Dade City black community educational experience; it is the beginning of them moving onward.”

Browning said he tried to keep emotion out of his decision and explained he had to put the welfare of the students first.

Programs at the facility will be relocated by August to nearby Pasco and Zephyrhills high schools and the Irvin Education Center.

“I get it,” Browning said. “It troubles me that I have to get to this point, but as I’ve been told, I’ve been superintendent a little over two years, this building did not get run down in two years. This has been an ongoing issue for probably the last three superintendents, I bet easily the last 15 years.

Letters about the relocation have been sent to parents.

Video: Patel Conservatory reaches 10th year of excellence

The new year means new beginnings but also the 10th anniversary of the Patel Conservatory at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa, a place that produces world-class musicians.

“What the conservatory brings is an overall holistic view: a combination of music, dance, and theater combined with a large performing-arts center,” said Brad Casey, managing director of the conservatory. “It’s one of the few arrangements of its kind in the country that really brings all of that together in one place and allows us to leverage that excellence.”

The conservatory has access to any of the five main theaters at the Straz Center while offering more than 100 different classes in dance, theater and music.

“The conservatory’s impact on the community has been pretty remarkable,” Casey said. “We’ve really elevated the level of arts education that didn’t exist anywhere before.”

The conservatory is a part of the Straz Center, which is the largest performing-arts center in the Southeastern U.S.

One program of note at the conservatory is the Next Generation Ballet (NGB) program. In 2014, seven American students were accepted into the Royal Ballet School in London. Of the seven, two were from the Patel Conservatory.

“I think that the training is really, really great,” said senior ballet student Alexandria Marks. “To be able to spend all day doing ballet is just something that is wonderful.”

The Patel Conservatory has also classes for students between the ages of 3 and 80. To find out more information on how to join, visit


Hillsborough County hopes to draw more filmmaking projects

Film in the Tampa Bay area? Really? Tampa is not known as a filmmaking hub, particularly when it comes to big-budget motion pictures. Interestingly enough, however, two major motion pictures are slated to shoot this spring.

“If you were to drop a pin in the middle of Tampa and draw a 30-mile circumference around the city, you’d find the community is incredibly diverse,” said Tyler Martinolich, production manager at the Hillsborough County Film Office.

Martinolich finds this to be advantageous for current and aspiring filmmakers. He cites the blue skies, the absence of violent Northern-like storms and the balmy weather overall as great reasons to film in the region. But that is not all.

“We’re essentially a blank slate,” Martinolich said. “Whatever we want to make Tampa look like, we can make it look like. And that is of great value to just about any production.”

But making a film is expensive, and the industry is highly competitive.

“The tax incentives need to be comparable to that of Georgia’s and to that of North Carolina’s,” said Ryan Terry, University of South Florida Graduate Assistant and filmmaker. “If I’m a big-time filmmaker, I would get much more bang for my buck if I just went to Georgia instead of Florida.”

Martinolich said if the Florida Legislature, which will rule on the topic of incentives in May, refuses to back incentive proposals like they have done in the past, it is back to square one.

“We’ll have to showcase our area as much as we can and rely primarily on local incentives to get anything to work,” Martinolich said.

Martinolich said there is a good indication lawmakers will rule in favor of incentives.

Area landmark, Tampa Pitcher Show delivers vintage movie-going experience

What was this place? The building can’t be seen from the street. Was I walking into a funhouse? Was this something out of Alice in Wonderland? Where did they get this sign? I had never experienced such a place. Perhaps I was too young to remember.

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The street sign on Dale Mabry Highway looked simple, and it listed had movies and beers.  As I approached, however, it was quiet. Walking through the foyer, I saw  a lone seat through transparent glass where one person could take money and dispense tickets. There were posters of The Godfather and Breakfast at Tiffany’s on the walls. It had that familiar movie-theater smell that our parents told us about. I continued through, wondering what I would find on the other side.

The small hallway that leads to the bar, comedy area and theater was deceiving. The theater to the left was big and well-designed. There were rows of leather seats and tabletops sporting menus. You could see the bar if you looked back and catch a glimpse of the projector room. The stage sits in front of the screen where The Rocky Horror Picture Show by the Cheap Little Punks took place. Burlesque shows also grace this stage.

Walking out of the theater, you see a small stage with a microphone, for anyone willing to try improv comedy. The living room is the best description for this area due to the chairs, televisions and bathrooms grouped around the small wooden platform. Artwork adorned the walls to make the room seem cozy and romantic.

Holiday lights decorate the mirror behind the stage, giving onlookers a familiar holiday greeting. The decor showed that the Tampa Pitcher Show was ready for the holidays. As for the staff, friendliness is a virtue.

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After touring the upstairs projection area, filled with old film reels and stacks of movie posters, you could see the artifacts of being in business for 33 years. However, that is the theater’s appeal. It’s not focused on being flashy or charging 20 dollars per ticket. It’s changing with the times to digital film and providing a friendly atmosphere to watch a movie and have a meal.

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