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



In the past decade, 3D printing has seen a large rise on the consumer front. Three years ago the University of South Florida brought this resource to students and faculty.

Using their Bullbucks, students can make 3D prints for $0.06 per ounce, with a minimum print of $1.00 . The 3D printing lab is located in the Advanced Visualization Center (AVC).

The physical aspect of the 3-D prints has drawn students of different disciplines, like Matthew Wedebrock, who works in the 3D printing lab.

“I like to make simulations, video games, so being able to actually take some of those 3D models and see them, feel them in real life, is a wonderful thing,” said Wedebrock.

In order to be able to make a print, students must come with a 3D model, which can be created from scratch on a variety of Computer-Aided Design (CAD) programs or found on social media sharing sites.

Howard Kaplan is a visualization developer in the Advanced Visualization Center. Kaplan,a graduate of Ringling College of Art and Design, has 10 years of digital arts experience.

“There are many different ways in which you can get a 3D model. You can use a CAD software to build up your model, you can use digital sculpting tools that are freely available,” said Kaplan. “Even Photoshop has the ability of taking an image and kind of doing a 2D, 2.5D, or 3D extrude to it and then exporting out for 3D printing.”

Several times during the semester, CAD workshops are given in SCA 222. The printing lab is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. The Visualization Lab is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

For more information, visit the AVC website at

USF presidential candidates share campaign platforms at debate

Recently announced University of South Florida presidential candidates took to the stage the evening of Feb. 4 to share their campaign platforms at the Student Body Presidential Debate.

Candidates Sammy Hamed, former Student Government chief justice, and Andy Rodriguez, current Senate president, answered a range of questions submitted by students.

“For me, the most important job of student government is shaping students for their future,” said Hamed. “ Students are here so they can get jobs after college.”

A Tampa native, Hamed is focusing his campaign mainly on outreach for students in the community after graduation and students’ professional growth during their time at USF.

Opposing candidate Rodriguez highlighted campus and student safety in his campaign, focusing on Safe Team and his plans to revamp the program.

“We have a few ideas to completely redo Safe Team, because Safe Team needs some work,” said Rodriquez. “People are waiting 30 to 45 minutes to get picked up, which is ridiculous.”

Other items that appeared on both candidates’ agendas included cultivating school spirit, including homecoming; and making Student Government more accessible to students.

“I don’t want students to be afraid to come up to the fourth floor,” Hamed said.

Voting will begin Feb. 16. Students are able to cast their vote online at or on campus at designated poll tents.

President’s State of the Union Address instigates strong opinions

On Jan. 20,  President Barack Obama gave the annual State of the Union Address, inciting strong reactions from both sides.

While several issues brought up were very important, one that many supported was the president’s proposal for free community college.

“I think it’s a great opportunity, especially now that it’s so hard to get a job even with a degree,” said Alyson Strand, president of the USF College Democrats.

Not only students, but parents as well, agreed with the Obama’s proposal.

“I’m a mom, and I have kids that are gonna go to college,” said Evelyn Kikta, “I mean, there’s no doubt about it. And we would like that to be accessible without my kids getting out with huge debt.”

Even though many thought highly of the Obama’s speech, some were more critical of the president’s stance on certain issues.

“Not planning for having to take care of ourselves in the future does not bide will with me,” said Charles Jarvis, veteran and retiree. “And I’m talking strictly military.”

Others criticized Obama’s decrease of the military, as well as the government’s seeming inaction with other recent world issues.

“I don’t want to see a war,” said Jarvis. “But you cannot stop a war by doing nothing. The Second World War was caused mainly because the whole world stood back and did nothing.”

Following the State of the Union, Obama met with the Dalai Lama at a lunch event.

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.

Rising gas prices spell trouble for USF commuters

Every day in Tampa Bay, most students take various roads to come to campus. For two USF students, their commutes are quite different.

Fine arts student Dillon O’ Donnell drives from the city to USF, while graduate student Edgar Prieto drives onto campus from Ruskin.

“My commute is about 45 minutes,” Prieto said.

Unfortunately, the good times for O’ Donnell and Prieto may not be for long, at least for right now, AAA Spokesman Mark Jenkins said.

“We will see an increase of 30 to 50 cents, which is common and no need to panic,” Jenkins said. “After Spring Break, we will see gas prices (fall) as the demand for gasoline goes down.”

With this recent stumble in high prices, the real question is not about the future, but about how much people are actually saving on their fuel costs.

“So the average household will save anywhere between $550 and $750 on fuel expenses, and that’s more money in people’s pockets that they can spend on travel, shopping, and dining out,” Jenkins said.

And that is just what O’Donnell and Prieto plan on doing.

“I plan on going camping or canoeing, but it takes money to fill up the tank,” O’Donnell said. “I’m going to Washington, D.C., with my family -wife and kids,” Prieto said.

As February began, gas prices were below $2 a gallon in the Tampa Bay area and remain steady. The lowest price for regular unleaded fuel was at Thornton’s at the intersection of Hillsborough and Armenia avenues for $1.72 a gallon, while the highest price for regular unleaded in the Tampa area was $1.99 at a Chevron in Town n’ Country. At the start of February, the average in Tampa was $1.94 a gallon, and the national average was $2.05 – 11 cents higher than Tampa.


USF students volunteer in community for MLK Jr. Day

More than 2,000 students at the University of South Florida woke up Saturday morning to give back to the Tampa Bay community during Martin Luther King Jr. weekend.

Since 2006, the Center for Leadership & Civic Engagement has hosted the school-wide annual service program “Stampede of Service” for Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. Stampede of Service, USF’s largest service program, allows students to serve the community through their personal interests and abilities, in return for lifelong memories and connections.

“Our goal is to help educate and empower each student to be a catalyst for change,” said Mallory Trochesset, associate director of the Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement.

At 8 a.m. on Jan. 17, student participants met at the USF Corbett Soccer Stadium and were grouped by their interests toward specific social issues, which included community issues, disabilities, education and literacy, health care, homelessness, senior citizen care, hunger, youth, and environmental.

“Especially with the new structure this year, it provides students with the opportunity to do service that they really want to do and to connect with community departments that they have never known about,” said Francis Gelormini, Days of Service coordinator on the Civic Engagement Board.

Maxon Victor, a USF student and founder of SOS, was one of the guest speakers who opened the event. Victor founded SOS for students to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day with their fellow peers and community partners by making a positive impact in the community.

“It was cool to have the guy who started it there to kind of talk to us and help us begin our day,” said Kristi Martinez, USF environmental biology major.

Each volunteer group was then sent to work with local companies and organizations at different locations around the Tampa Bay area. The service tasks ranged anywhere from picking up trash around USF to restocking shelves at the Community Food Pantry.

“This year we had 168 different organizations that have registered,” Trochesset said.

One environmental group volunteered for the City of Temple Terrace by planting trees in the newly built residential community. The City of Temple Terrace collects and plants new trees for these new communities, parks and other various sites each week and is always eager to have an extra set of helping hands whenever possible.

“Today we planted bald cypress trees as a part of the ‘rebuilding community’ efforts, because when they have to do construction sometimes they take down a lot of trees,” Martinez said. “So we are replanting them.”

By digging, replanting and watering the trees for these new homes, students realized their actions were significant for not only the community, but the world as well.

“If you don’t have enough trees, there will be a lack of oxygen and the whole ecosystem will be out of balance,” said Abigail Nicholas, USF computer engineering major. “It [SOS] helped me be more aware of everything, like how trees don’t just pop out of nowhere and people actually work on it.”

After completing their service activities, students met up at USF’s Greek Village at about 12:30 p.m. to enjoy free food and entertainment as a thank-you for their time and efforts bettering the Tampa Bay community. Students left the event not only with a free T-shirt and volunteer experience, but with new connections in the community and new found knowledge about the environment in which they live.

“They can establish relationships for the future that have great opportunities for anything,” Gelormini said.

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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Abortion controversy takes the stage at USF

An onstage speech against abortion brought controversy to a live music event at Beef ‘O’ Brady’s on USF’s campus Tuesday night.

Toward the end of the night, a friend of one of the members of the headlining band took over the stage and rapped about a few topics. The friend asked the audience what the No. 1 killer of African-Americans was, and he received no response. He said the answer was abortion, and then promoted his anti-abortion message with a rap. According to Taylor Mihocik, 19, the people coordinating the show didn’t look too happy.

“It was too controversial for an open mic night,” she said.

It was the only controversy of an otherwise successful night. Mihocik liked how anyone could get up and perform and thought it was an excellent place to showcase talent. While some students felt uncomfortable, others thought the concept of an open form should be encouraged to showcase the diverse culture at University of South Florida.

“This should happen more often, for sure,” said biochemistry and biotechnology major Dimitrios Antoniadis, 22.

A USF graduate student studying child behavioral health and the local band House of Woodbury proposed the event to Beef ‘O’ Brady’s in December. Desiree Jones, 24, coordinated with Beef ‘O’ Brady’s management, the food and dining hall, and lighting and sound people to get the restaurant prepared for the event.

“I’m not a band manager or anything so it was a new experience for me,” she said. “It was a little challenge for myself, but it was fun.”

Originally, the event was being held at the bookstore’s Starbucks on Wednesday nights, but was moved because of the early closing time. Now it’s at Beef ‘O’ Brady’s on Tuesday nights from 8-9:30 p.m. Rather than have a set house band, Beef ‘O’ Brady’s gives other artists opportunities by featuring a different band every month along with other student acts.

One of the other acts plans to perform as much as they can at Beef ‘O’ Brady’s, because of the great atmosphere and challenge it created.

“It’s about time there’s some live music,” said environmental biology major and guitarist Chris Atteridge, 22.

Antoniadis and Atteridge both thought the best part of performing was the crowd’s response. Their goal as a band is to play at more shows and more diverse venues.


Florida Focus Military Brief 02-11-2015

In this Florida Focus Military Brief: Department of Veterans Affairs continues efforts to decrease veteran homelessness; Brian Rothenberger tells us about a federal program that allows law enforcement agencies to purchase recycled military weapons; military suicide rates are declining.


Community gardens sprout up across Tampa Bay, reflect growing interest in locally grown food

Photo By: Ariana Matos
Photo By: Ariana Matos

Recently, the popularity of organic, locally grown and sustainable foods has many USF students wondering where the food they eat comes from.

According to the USDA, organic food sales nationwide have increased by 20 percent since 1990. Chains such as Publix and Walmart are selling organic items, and produce stands touting sustainable farmed crops are sprouting up all over Tampa.

This isn’t an accident; the USDA cited that people with a secondary education sought out and bought more organic foods than those without a college degree, which makes the Tampa area prime real estate for health-conscious consumers.

All of this demand comes with a price tag. Traditionally, locally grown products are more expensive than their conventionally grown counterparts, which has prompted the habitually broke college student to seek out other, more reasonably priced sources.

Some students buy their organic foods from big chain supermarkets but more commonly popular, and cheaper avenues for local produce are the community gardens that surround USF.

The coffee shop Felicitous has had a community garden for two and a half years. Started by a former employee, the garden consists of six moderately sized planters filled with everything from carrots to chamomile.

“Initially, we were only planting herbs,” longtime employee and USF student Andrew Sestok said. “Now we have carrots, broccoli, kale, mustard greens, lettuce, and we could eat all of this now.”

Having no experience other than  gardening, Sestok and his co-workers tried their hand at creating an inexpensive and productive garden for anyone to benefit from.

“I’d like to implement a portion of the plants into our food, and I would also like to advocate that people come and just take some,” Sestok said.

The garden is built from scrap wood and old pallets. Because the wood is not treated with the chemicals that prevent weather damage, eventually it will rot and an overhaul will be necessary, but Sestok thinks it is the only way to ensure no undesired chemicals affect the consumer.

“Someone that is really interested in organic and homegrown (food) is typically intolerant of even the slightest contingency, so there are patrons and friends that would not accept it if we did not take such precautions as we do,” Sestok said.

For four years, Kitty Wallace has been the coordinator for the Tampa Heights Community Garden, just south of Hillsborough Avenue, about 10 miles from the USF Tampa campus.

In her work cultivating gardens with a diverse group of people, she has found that organic farming is important for many because of the growing interest people have in their food, from what chemicals are involved in its cultivation to genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

“I think the GMO issue has really kicked concern (into) action for people wanting to be sure their food is grown from seeds that haven’t been affected by genetic modification,” Wallace said. “People are very concerned about some of the effects that we are seeing now in pesticides and herbicides.”

Wallace connects this with the fact that many patrons of the Tampa Heights Community Garden are just starting to have children. Many don’t want to take chances with GMOs and would rather eat local instead.

“We have a lot of young families,” Wallace said. “This past year we had four babies born in the families of the garden. We have almost 200 people gardening with us right now.”

As environmentally conscious students settle down and begin having families, instilling in their children a passion for locally grown foods becomes important. Christopher Hawthorne, 26, education program director at Sweetwater Organic Community Farm, is charged with teaching them.

“I started as a part-time farmer and I was interested in starting field trips,” Hawthorne said.  “In the following season our education program manager ended up moving away and recommending me to take her spot, so I now manage the field trip program as well as the summer farm camp.”

Hawthorne seeks to give children more knowledge surrounding responsible farming practices, like companion planting versus the use of chemical pesticides.

“We’re also interested in teaching kids about wild edible plants and exposing them to what’s in the Florida environment, and it’s a real delight to show kids that you can eat a flower or something you think of as just a weed. It really opens their minds to the experience of food beyond just going to the grocery store.”

With the more and more produce stands popping up all around Tampa, local gardens seem like they are here to stay. If one has not experienced growing and eating food from scratch, the process of paying for a plot of dirt may seem absurd, but one common thread seems to persist: local gardens effectively foster the sense of community their name promises.

“Many of the gardeners have joined the garden because they like the idea of being able to garden with others. … You get to know the gardener that is next to you and people come together,” Wallace said. “There is a lot of community spirit that is developed through the garden.”

Local martial arts gym offers training in many fighting styles

World Class Martial Arts is the place to train if you’re looking for a gym that features a little bit of everything. Located in Tampa, World Class Martial Arts offers all the fight styles you’re looking for in order to become a complete, well-rounded fighter, including boxing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, taekwondo and many more. The gym is led by head instructor Ralph Garcia, who possesses a list of noteworthy accomplishments in the martial arts realm, which is why Garcia feels World Class Martial Arts is one of the premier gyms in the Tampa Bay area.

“I have four black belts right now. I have a 4th degree black belt in taekwondo. I have a 1st degree black belt in Aiki jiu-jitsu. I have a 2nd degree black belt in American jiu-jitsu, and I have a black belt I recently received in Brazilian jiu-jitsu,” Garcia said. “I incorporate pretty much everything. My fighters are usually the most well-rounded fighters in the Bay area, probably.”

This year, the gym grew even stronger by adding another world-class martial arts instructor for their fighters to learn from. With the addition of Judo instructor Marc Maciel, he believes his fight style transitions very easily to MMA.

“Judo is a quick, safe way of teaching jiu-jitsu,” Maciel said. “Once you get your black belt, then you have the rest of the techniques of jiu-jitsu included, and kicks, punches, as well as weapons.”

World Class Martial Arts has trained fighters who have become commercially successful in the sport. Luis Zequeira, an undefeated professional MMA fighter training at World Class Martial Arts, credits his recent success to Garcia and his gym.

“If it wasn’t because of him and the whole team and the other teammates and everyone, you know, we wouldn’t be where we’re at right now as one of the best gyms in the state of Florida,” Zequeira said.

Zequeira isn’t the only student who feels that way. Sarah Kleczka, an amateur MMA fighter at World Class Martial Arts,  believes her gym is best place to train in the area.

“I feel like that our fighters come so much further, so much (more) quickly,” Kleczka said. “I feel like we get all sorts of training and not just one part of training, but we get it all.”

So if you’re an upcoming fighter and looking for a place to train and get in shape in the Tampa Bay area, check out World Class Martial Arts and see if it’s the right place for you.

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USF Opens Floor to Pulitzer Prize Winner

Pulitzer Prize winner Lane DeGregory spoke to students at the University of South Florida Monday about her journey through journalism, and gave advice to future professionals, such as talking to someone before writing your story, even if it’s your dog.

In 2009, DeGregory’s article “Girl in the Window,” a story about a feral child who was rescued and adopted, won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing and immediately made a big impact on her life. After the article’s first day on the Tampa Bay Times website, it crashed because of so many views. Through her signature storytelling technique, DeGregory hooked readers and shared the moving tale.

“When I started reporting that story, it was going to be a Mother’s Day story,” DeGregory said. “It was going to be like a Sunday centerpiece story for Mother’s Day and it was a good story, but I had no idea how big it would get.”

While most news stories are cut and dry, DeGregory’s genre of writing provides readers with one person to follow through a journey. She covers an event by following one person’s experience and turning it into a narrative that evokes emotion from her audience.

“Anytime I see her byline in the paper, that’s the first thing I read,” said Wendy Whitt,  Writing for Mass Media instructor at USF.

DeGregory’s writing style has expanded the typical breaking news event into a heartfelt chronicle that makes the reader feel something, while still providing relevant information.

“I never really thought of journalism as human interest,” said USF student Caylie Rowe, 19.

DeGregory, who has more than 25 years of experience,  shared advice from her life in journalism, like not getting lost in your notes when trying to write a story. She also shared her technique of talking to someone about your article before writing it. DeGregory especially stressed the importance of internships.

“Work in your field,” she said. “Even if it’s unpaid, it’s going to help launch you into that career, and into a job that’s going to get you a salary.”

DeGregory chose her college, University of Virginia, not because it had a great journalism program, but because of the daily student-run newspaper that was ranked in the top 10 of the country. Although students should strive to get good grades, DeGregory explains that her employers always wanted to see experience in the field.

Through all her hard work and passion, DeGregory has fulfilled her childhood dream.

“Since I was 5 years old, the only thing I ever wanted to be was a journalist,” she said.

As a young child growing up in Washington, D.C., DeGregory fell in love with journalism during the Watergate scandal. Every morning her father would read the Washington Post to her and her sister while they ate breakfast.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, that is the coolest thing in the world, these two young reporters taking down the president of the United States,’” said DeGregory.

DeGregory would love to have a story in The New Yorker and check that item off her bucket list. In the meantime, she is working on a book proposal, which she has never done before. The book will be about one of her articles on Zeke, the dog who saved his owner on several occasions.

“Somebody cares, and if you can find that person that cares, and you kind of sort of get into their head or inhabit their body, and get a little bit of their backstory about why they care, then you’re going to make readers care, and you’re going to make them connect,” said DeGregory.



Florida Focus 02-10-2015

In today’s episode of Florida Focus: doctors say St. Pete man is too incompetent to stand trial; Jeb Bush releases thousands of e-mails to the public; Home Depot adds over a thousand jobs to the Tampa Bay market; Feeding America Tampa Bay teams with the State Fair; the USF women’s basketball team makes history.



Video: Leto High boys basketball on the upswing

The Leto High School boys basketball team hadn’t won more than four games in a season since the 2005-06 season. This immediately changed when coach Mike Heben came to Tampa from Cleveland in 2013 and the Falcons finished the season with a 5-19 record.

While coaching is widely considered the first attribution to the team’s success, the talent on this team should not be overlooked.

Leto’s standout player is junior guard David Jones, who is averaging 24 points and nine assists per game.

“I do everything,”Jones said. “I’m not just a scorer. I use my talent to lead by example for my teammates.”

Helping Jones with the leadership of the team is senior guard Joe Bergollo.

Heben recruited Bergollo off Leto’s baseball team midway through last season. Heben said Bergollo, who previously had no basketball experience, quickly stepped up and set an example for his teammates.

“I’m looking to win, and I think this attitude is contagious to my team,” Bergollo said.

This team has come a long way under Heben’s guidance. With a team of mostly inexperienced players, sticking to a playbook of 10 plays has allowed the Falcons to progress toward their goal of a winning season for the first time in eight years.

Jones said that the family dynamic of the team has been the driving force behind its progress.

“We’re a family, both on and off the court,” Jones said.

That chemistry has helped earn Leto a spot in the district tournament, which started Feb. 2.

This would be Leto’s first Class 6A, District 9 title since 1997.

Tampa furniture store strives to maintain values and history

In the semi-basement of the former Santaella Cigar Factory, hundreds of office chairs are stacked up where tobacco and leaves were once stored to keep them dry and cool. Dim daylight shines through the small basement windows on the north side of the building, barely illuminating the numerous desks that almost touch the low ceiling. Office cabinets block the old factory’s conveyor belt that used to transport the raw material for the hand-made cigars.

The Ellis-Van Pelt family bought the old cigar factory  on North Armenia Avenue in 1997 to store and sell new and used office furniture. Since then, the family has been committed to preserving the 110-year-old building and using it to run an honest and reliable family business.

“Our secret and biggest asset is trust,” said the general manager and founder of the company, 86-year-old Gray Ellis. “We are easy to deal with, so once we have somebody in here, they’ll come back over and over again.”

When the Ellis-Van Pelt family was looking for a bigger storage area, the four-story former cigar factory did not seem to be the right fit for their business.

“When I first saw the building, I thought that there was no way we could afford it,” Gray Ellis said, laughing. “But it turned out the be an easy buy.”

Ellis-Van Pelt Inc. was founded in 1979 and has been family-owned for four generations. In a building that used to house approximately 1,000 workers, the furniture store today has a staff of about nine people, which includes the founder’s daughter and two sons. But Gray Ellis and his wife, Joann Ellis, are not completely sure of that number.

“We are three sitting right here,” Joann Ellis interjected, referring to her husband, herself and their longtime employee Sue Dortch, when Gray Ellis tried to count the company’s workforce.

Dortch has been a family friend since she was a little girl. She remembers meeting Joann Ellis’s mother in church for the first time. After working at a corporate job, she started helping out at the company’s office.

“I’ve always kind of stuck around,” Dortch said.

In the company’s office, time seems to have come to a standstill. Three dusty wooden chairs, hand-made and left behind by former cigar factory workers, are propped on a pedestal. Shelves hold memorabilia and pictures of the cigar factory from earlier years. The family is especially proud of a picture showing New York Yankees baseball player Babe Ruth, who used to come to the factory to buy his cigars.

“We are trying to maintain the character of the building as close to the original as possible,” Gray Ellis said.

The building’s primarily wooden architecture has mostly been left untouched, Bubba Ellis, the company’s president and one of the sons, pointed out. The cigar factory’s freight elevator and stairways are still in their original state.

“It is sad how much went away in Tampa and how many cigar factories have been torn down,” Dortch said. “You learn a lot when you work in this building.”

The family decided not to add the building to the National Register of Historic Places. Instead, they try to take care of the building as much as they can.

“It would cost a fortune to maintain the building according to their standards,” Gray Ellis said.

The former factory requires constant maintenance, and the family added beams to further support the building’s framework. They also have to make sure no rain will come in through the windows.

“With older buildings, the cost is double as it is,” Joann Ellis said.

The family only uses the basement and the first floor for their furniture storage. When rent for studios in Ybor City started rising, many artists were looking for other options. Only a year after the family bought the building, the first artist moved his studio to the former cigar factory.

“Word of mouth filled this place up quickly,” Gray Ellis said. “We didn’t plan this.”

Since the third and fourth floor were originally left as open space, artists were able to request how big they wanted each studio to be. Now, those floors are divided into several studios, which are occupied by approximately 40 artists. This part of the building has come to be known as the Santaella Studios for the Arts.

“When I looked for a studio, I couldn’t find anything I liked,” said Kerry Vosler, one of the artists in residence. “The rent is reasonable, and I could individualize it and make it my own.”

Vosler has always liked the neighborhood and the old building. Since she moved her studio to the old factory building in 2010, she has built a relationship with the Ellis-Van Pelt family.

“I’ve always loved the fact that they rented to artists,” she said. “The family is very supportive, and they all attend every art event that we have in the building.”

Today, the third and fourth floors are completely occupied by artists for years in advance. The owners even have artists on a waiting list in case a studio becomes available.

“We can provide them with a space to pursue their art passion besides their regular work,” Gray Ellis said.

Due to the age and condition of the building, the owners cannot rent space to every artist. No sculptors are allowed, since dust comes with the creation of their art. Potters are banned since their art requires too much heat and energy. Artists also must keep noise to a minimum.

“That would be too much for the building,” Dortch said, laughing.

While Gray and Joann Ellis are still actively working in the family business, they transferred the ownership of the building to their three children.

“We gave it to them a long time ago,” Joann Ellis interjected, looking up from her stack of papers.

Their business mostly runs on word-of-mouth advertising and listings on eBay and Craigslist. While the competition in the office furniture business keeps growing, the family is positive about the future of their company as long as they stay true to their values.

“Top notch people! They always offer excellent quality and value,” said one review on the Ellis-Van Pelt Inc. Facebook page.

The family hopes that improved housing and new developments in the area will also bring more people, so they can continue to run their business and maintain the building.

Pedestrian, motor vehicle accidents pose safety risks to USF students


The most dangerous part of attending college is the journey to campus. Students who walk, bike or board to class face a higher risk for injury or death.

“It’s a combination of things,”said Chris Daniel, assistant police chief at the University of South Florida. “Part of the problem is, people come here and look at the university as a protected environment, not just in personal safety but safety with valuables and everything else.

“We are part of the bigger community around us. We have vehicles that travel through here that have no affiliation with USF whatsoever, but it’s an easy way to get from Fletcher to Fowler, so people just cut through.”

In 2011, there were 38 pedestrian and bicycle related crashes within a 1.5-mile radius around and including USF’s campus.

There are five apartment complexes, two campus entrances and several bus stops on 50th street, a high-traffic area for students.

Earlier this school year, 19-year-old Elizabeth Courtney was crossing 50th Street on her way to class when she was struck and critically injured by a Nissan Altima. The driver, Earnest Washington, was cited for failure to yield to a pedestrian within a marked crosswalk.

In 2012, 4,743 people were killed in pedestrian/motor vehicle related accidents, which equates to more than 12 deaths per day. According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 66% of pedestrian deaths were at non-intersections.

At the beginning of each semester, USF hosts Bulls Walk/Bike Week to encourage healthier living, reduction of greenhouse gasses and safer transportation for students to and from campus. But according to some students, not enough is being done.

“It might take these people who are affected, like me, to complain about it, because it’s just too dangerous,” said Tanisha Roberts, an ON50 resident.

Flu season keeps blood donors home, increases demand for supply

Blood drive donations are low due to the hurting blood supply in the Tampa area. Having the flu is bringing our blood collection services down with it.

“If you currently have the flu, you can’t donate,” OneBlood nurse Alesia Williams said. “If you have the flu vaccine and don’t have the flu you can … but normally we have a shortage of a lot of the negatives. The negatives are normally in shortage because it’s the universal donor, and anyone can take that.”

OneBlood donation service desperately needs healthy donors, particularly those with the universal type, O negative.

“A lot of times it’s the O negatives, A negatives, B negatives — those are a lot in shortage because we use those a lot,” Williams said.

Too many people are home sick with the flu, causing blood donations to decrease.

“Actually, there is a huge flu outbreak right now, but I’m here and I’m healthy, so I’ll keep going with it,” said University of South Florida student Lauren Greene.

Healthy people 16 or older who weigh at least 110 pounds are the ideal donors.

USF’s Tampa campus has two OneBlood vehicles, at the Sun Dome and the Marshall Student Center.

“It’s really convenient to have these buses here,” Greene said. ”I live on campus, so it’s really easy to get here. I don’t have to travel, and you shouldn’t be driving cars after anyway, just in case something goes wrong. So having them here makes it really easy to get here.”

Donors receive a mini check-up. Schedule an appointment at or call 1-888-936-6283.

Tampa officials hope to expand downtown streetcar service

Tampa’s downtown dinosaurs could be transformed into modern and efficient means of transportation. The historic trolleys that connect downtown, Channelside and Ybor have seen a steady decline in passengers since 2009.

The trolleys start at noon on weekdays, making them more of a novelty than a necessity. Mayor Bob Buckhorn as well as the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, the entity that runs the streetcars, have been discussing expanding the system as well as extending hours and frequency.

“In an ideal world, we would be running the streetcar starting at 6:30 in the morning,” said HART CEO Katharine Eagan. “We’d run every 10 minutes in rush hour, maybe every 12 minutes, and a minimum every 15 minutes midday and the evening.”

The streetcars have a long history in Tampa Bay that began in 1892 back when the streetcar was a necessity. Ridership peaked in the 1920s, with over 24 million passengers in1926. The streetcar returned to Tampa in 2002 without the large number of riders.

“It’s absolutely possible to change the type of streetcar that we’re using and go with something with a more modern design,” Eagan said.

Downtown business owners, as well as HART, are interested in returning the streetcar to its former glory. The only problem is funding.