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Panther found dead in southwest Florida

Officials say a Florida panther has been found dead from what appears to be a fight with another panther in southwest Florida.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reports that the 4-year-old-old male cat’s body was found Saturday on private property in Hendry County. The remains will be taken to a Gainesville facility for a necropsy.

This is the second Florida panther death recorded in 2017.

Florida panthers once roamed the entire southeastern U.S., but only around 180 remain in the wild.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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Citizinvestor’s Tony DeSisto takes on new challenge, launches Simple Greek franchise

Tony DeSisto, the Tampa-based civic activist, is rising to accept a new challenge — restaurateur.

The co-founder of Citizinvestor, an online crowdfunding platform for public and community infrastructure projects, will open the first Florida franchise of The Simple Greek, an innovative fast-casual concept that seeks to transform the idea of a traditional Greek restaurant.

Starting in mid-February, The Simple Greek – with a Chipotle-goes-to-Athens vibe – will be serving customers an interactive experience, using simple ordering (described as a “build-your-own assembly line-style”), open kitchens and only fresh, high-quality ingredients.

As the company website says: “We want our guests to experience The Simple Greek as if they were traveling to Greece the very first time.”

The idea for Simple Greek began in 2004, when Mike Ference and Kathleen Kamouyerou-Ference opened a small Greek pita stand out of a garage in McMurray, a small town near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After attempts to franchise a few locations with sons Andreas and Michael, the family reached out to Marcus Lemonis, host of the CNBC show The Profit.

Lemonis – who is of Greek descent and always expressed an interest in sharing his culture and love of the food from his ancestral home – made a deal with the family, which they accepted.

“Marcus came in, invested in the company and took a majority,” DeSisto says, “rebranding it and turning it into the concept it is now … an open kitchen feel, fresh, healthy build-your-own meal-style.”

A critical element for the success of any small business is having the right staff in the right roles. Knowing this, Lemonis brought on a management team to work alongside the Ference family, giving each distinct functions and responsibilities within the organization.

DeSisto first learned about The Simple Greek through The Profit, where Lemonis preaches simple advice for future franchisees: “Know your numbers, trust the process, and remember we are working together to build something special.”

DeSisto was hooked.

“I’ve always been interested in the restaurant business,” DeSisto says, “particularly in franchises.” Although he admits he has no restaurant experience, DeSisto says he had been looking at new opportunities for quite some time, and Simple Greek offered just the right business model, with an excellent fit and a “great company behind it.”

And coupling that open, interactive concept with Greek food was a “really good spin,” he adds.

“I looked at [franchises] over a number of years,” DeSisto says, “But, for one reason or another, never went through with it – the content didn’t work or the numbers didn’t make sense.”

“With [Simple Greek], I thought it was a great concept. I think it’s the way we’re moving … people love eating healthy, fresh food that they can see prepared as they go through the line.”

After investing to secure the territory of South Tampa, Channelside and Ybor City through Hillsborough County, DeSisto selected the Carrollwood location — at 12908 N. Dale Mabry Highway near W. Fletcher Avenue — for the first Simply Greek in Florida. DeSisto is also beginning construction on another on in Rhode Island, his family home.

Currently, Simply Greek has three locations in Pennsylvania; one in Wichita Falls, Texas; and about 20 more expected to open soon on the East Coast, in Texas, Chicago and Arizona. The North Tampa location, which can be reached at (813) 264-0050, also has an active presence on Facebook, asking friends and followers to #shareyourinnergreek.

As for why he chose that particular plaza – which includes Side Splitters Comedy Club – there’s nothing that matched the healthy Simple Greek approach.

“I think the great thing about that [Carrolwood] location is its high traffic area,” DeSisto says about the neighborhood, “with people going up-and-down Dale Mabry all day. There’s a number of fast casual restaurants there, and demand for that kind of food.”

Now about two weeks from grand opening, DeSisto anticipates his new venture will become a solid starting point for future Simple Greek locations throughout the Tampa area.

“If we deliver a good product,” DeSisto says, “we will be successful.”

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Table 23 expands take on ‘American cuisine’ with weekday lunch menu

Originally a hot spot for drinks and dinner, Tallahassee’s newest landmark restaurant is expanding its take on “Americana cuisine” weekdays to the lunch hour.

Table 23, located at the corner of Thomasville Road and Sixth Street in Midtown, is now serving lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Featuring many favorites from the dinner menu, the lunch offerings also include lighter fare, including sandwiches, salads and soups.

Appetizer offerings include Sweet Potato Hummus, Smoked Mullet Croquetas and The Southern Slate, a sampler of Table 23’s Southern-style creations — candied bacon, air-cured ham, pimento cheese, deviled eggs, pickled shrimp, cheese straws and naturally fermented pickled vegetables.

Sandwiches include burgers, turkey and arugula, grilled grouper and a stellar slow-roasted brisket. The entrée selections include dill pickle-brined chicken breast, a smoked New York strip steak, fried catfish and a grilled Gouda pork chop.

The restaurant also has expanded its Happy Hour pricing to lunchtime too — $1 off specialty cocktails and beer, $3 house wines, and half-price call and well drinks.

 

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Miami’s Little Havana placed on list of ‘national treasures’

Historic preservation groups announced a partnership Friday with city officials to save Miami’s Little Havana, bidding to safeguard its heritage as the famed epicenter of the Cuban diaspora was placed on a list of “national treasures.”

The nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation said awarding its special designation for the Spanish-speaking enclave is just one step of the partnership to protect Little Havana from large-scale developers who are transforming much of downtown Miami.

Home to a vibrant community of Cuban heritage and many others from around Latin America, Little Havana is under multiple threats: Demolition of historic buildings, displacement of its existing residents, and decades of wear and tear. The same organization placed the neighborhood in its annual list of America’s 11 most endangered historic places in 2015.

“Little Havana has a really strong immigrant history,” said Stephanie Meeks, president and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “It’s a very inviting place. It’s very colorful. It’s very warm. The sense of community is very strong.”

But she cautioned: “We want all that to remain but at the same time we know that communities need to adapt and change overtime to meet the needs of the residents.”

She said the “national treasures” designation also will help allied organizations, city officials, residents and investors unite to discuss ways to improve the living conditions of its working-class population, preserve historic buildings and allow moderate development of its neglected areas.

In coming months, planners and developers are to discuss what to do with vacant lots, abandoned buildings and consider which historic sites are worth protecting. And starting in March, they will hold workshops with residents and city officials to share their plans.

“There are many bad buildings and people with a poor quality of life here,” said Daniel Martin, a handyman who settled in Little Havana after leaving Cuba 15 years ago. “Since I don’t speak English, this was the right place for me to be.”

The neighborhood’s signature street, Calle Ocho, is one of the top spots most frequented by tourists after Miami Beach. It features cigar shops, art galleries and mom-and-pop stores where Cubans and their descendants reminisce about the island. Visitors sip aromatic Cuban coffee, eye daily games of dominoes by locals and take selfies at the Versailles restaurant, hub of the exile community.

“My hope is that tears and the dreams of hundreds of thousands of people will not be forgotten,” said Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado, speaking at Friday’s event to announce the partnership. “My hope is that history is not rewritten and the anguish of the Cuban exiles, the Nicaraguans is forever erased.”

Located just west of downtown Miami, Little Havana grew in the 1960s as Cubans fled Fidel Castro‘s communist Cuba. The neighborhood has changed some in recent decades as new immigrants have arrived from Central America and Colombia, opening new restaurants and stores.

Some developers have taken risks to refurbish old buildings such as Hugh Ryan, who took what he calls “the worst crack house in the neighborhood” and turned it into a two-story pastel green building with a royal emblem of a salamander on its facade.

“Anything can be saved. The whole neighborhood is trying to do that now,” said Ryan, pointing to a similar two-story apartment building next door and two other buildings across the street that have been renovated in East Little Havana.

Andrew Frey, who is building an 8-unit apartment building, put up a giant blue sign outside that reads “Little Havana is the Amenity.”

“We don’t offer pools, gyms or spas here,” he said about his construction. “Little Havana has history, culture. It has real people. It has a narrative you can’t control.”

Little Havana joins a list of “national treasures” that includes such sites as Nashville’s Music Row, the Grand Canyon and New Jersey’s Princeton Battlefield.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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Plea in murder case from unlikely spot: the victim, a priest

The Rev. Rene Robert devoted his life to helping society’s most troubled, working with drug addicts and criminals, and even signing a “Declaration of Life” that called for his killer to be spared execution in the event of his murder.

More than two decades after filing that document, his wish will be tested.

Robert’s body – shot multiple times – was found in the Georgia woods last year after a multistate manhunt led to the arrest of Steven Murray, a repeat offender Robert had been trying to help for months. Police said Murray asked the 71-year-old priest for a ride in Jacksonville, Florida, then kidnapped him and drove him across the state line. Days later, Murray led officers to the priest’s body, police said.

Prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty if Murray is convicted of murder, citing the slaying’s aggravated nature. That decision was based on the facts alone, Augusta Judicial Circuit District Attorney Ashley Wright told The Associated Press.

“We don’t look at whether the victim is a priest, a nun, a philanthropist, a drug dealer or something else,” she said.

But Catholic officials from Georgia and Florida plan to protest Tuesday on the courthouse steps in Augusta, citing Robert’s own words opposing capital punishment.

“I request that the person found guilty of homicide for my killing not be subject to or put in jeopardy of the death penalty under any circumstances, no matter how heinous their crime or how much I may have suffered,” states the document Robert signed in 1995, notarized and witnessed by an attorney, that he insisted be kept in his personnel file.

Prosecutors frequently don’t have access to the wishes of a murder suspect’s victim when making such decisions, let alone a statement so clearly opposed to capital punishment. Even so, it’s one of many factors, and the choice ultimately is the prosecutor’s, said Georgia State University law professor Lauren Sudeall Lucas, who lectures on capital punishment.

“There’s not a lot of legal precedent for this having any real impact,” she said.

On a more subjective level, she said, a prosecutor could decide not to seek the death penalty because of Robert’s statement. But ultimately the district attorney represents the state, not the victim, she added.

Murray’s attorney, Ryan Swingle, has been a public defender for 15 years, working exclusively on capital cases for the last four. He’s inspired by people like Robert, he said.

“It is both my personal and professional hope that his sincere wishes based on his faith will be honored,” Swingle said. He’s not sure what weight Robert’s declaration will be given by the state, court or jury, but said “it should be considered thoughtfully by everyone involved.”

Murray smiled and waved at TV cameras during his initial court appearance but has waffled between sorrow and defiance in public.

“I’m very sorry and if anybody really loves Father Rene, they’ll forgive me because he was a man of God and forgiveness is forgiveness,” he said after an early hearing in April. “I have mental problems, and I lost control of myself, and I apologize.”

Murray struck a harsh tone after another hearing in September: “Tell the world I say f— ’em,” he told reporters.

Asked about his client’s statements, Swingle said “I think he’s expressed sincere remorse and has done so publicly, and I think that speaks for itself.”

Since his latest arrest, Murray has twice attempted to kill himself in jail. He didn’t respond to an interview request mailed to the Clayton County jail near Atlanta.

Murray grew up in South Carolina in an abusive family, said his sister Bobbie Jean Murray. A brother is in prison for murder, their father’s been in and out of prison, and the abuse led Murray to drugs and crime at an early age. He met the priest through a girlfriend, Ashley Shreve; the couple did drugs together, and Robert often gave them money, against their families’ wishes.

“They used him, no doubt,” Bobbie Jean Murray said. “He gave Ashley a credit card. They used Father Rene to get what they wanted, and I do feel like he was an enabler.”

Robert was so devoted to addicts that he’d lend them his car and walk home alone through high-crime neighborhoods, according to colleagues at San Sebastian Catholic Church in St. Augustine, Florida.

His compassion for the poor compelled him to scrape leftovers from dinner plates into baggies to feed people in the streets, the colleagues said.

“He spent almost all of his money on others and then begged for himself,” said the Rev. John Gillespie, the first to report the fellow priest missing. “I teach to students: Do the things Rene did, but don’t do them the way he did them.”

Fran Gradick, Shreve’s mother, said a bank card in her daughter’s name, linked to Robert’s bank account, showed up in the mail after her daughter overdosed and went to jail, just before Robert disappeared.

“I begged him for years, this goes back 13 years, ‘please step away, please quit,'” Gradick said.

Robert always honored the privacy of the people to whom he ministered, even when relatives had questions, said the Rev. Heriberto Vergara, who worked with Robert in prisons. They considered their work with even the most violent criminals to be like any confession – a private spiritual matter.

“He had the conviction of a priest that these people also are important to God,” Vergara said in Spanish.

Robert’s sister, Deborah Bedard, initially wanted Murray to be executed but told The Florida Times-Union newspaper she changed her mind after learning of her brother’s letter.

Murray’s sister sees the letter as heaven-sent.

“I feel like that was an act of God,” Bobbie Jean Murray said. “I’m praying for a miracle, and God’s got it in his hands.”

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

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Airbnb offers free housing for refugees

Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky has offered free housing Saturday night to refugees worldwide who are not able to return to the United States because of President Trump’s executive order.

Chesky posted on Facebook detailing how he disagrees with the president’s order barring people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S.

“Not allowing countries or refugees into America is not right, and we must stand with those who are affected,” Chesky wrote.

Airbnb has 3 million homes worldwide, according to the CEO.

Chesky is asking those who would like more details about the offer to email him at brian.chesky@airbnb.com.

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No fries: Florida wants students to whip up healthy dishes

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is looking for the state’s best student chef.

Putnam wants high school students around the state to enter the “Fresh from Florida Student Chef Cook-Off.” The deadline is Feb. 2.

Putnam says the goal is to encourage children to prepare healthy meals.

The contest rules require students to create an original recipe that includes one fresh fruit or vegetable grown in the state.

Finalists will be chosen to compete in five regional cook-offs which will be held in March and April. The regional winners will participate in a statewide cook-off at the Florida School Nutrition Association annual conference.

The ultimate winner will be invited to serve with a professional chef at one of the department’s future events.

On the web: http://www.freshfromflorida.com/Divisions-Offices/Food-Nutrition-and-Wellness/Fresh-From-Florida-Student-Chef-Cook-Off.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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Blake Dowling: Tech, politics & the Simpsons

The marriage of technology and politics is like the pairing of Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise – a big mess (minus the Scientology shenanigans of course).

Hillary emails, Trump tweets, Ashley Madison’s hack … there’s always something to keep your eye on. Always will be.

With breaches and exposure around every corner, certain key figures inside our government use apps for communication that disappear after a certain amount of time. If any of you readers in Florida Politics-land have teenagers, I’m sure you’ve seen Snapchat on their phone.

Unlike texts, where you can read what they are up to, Snapchat messages vanish.

Well, now there is a Snapchat for adults, and one of those messaging apps is called Signal.

Signal uses end-to-end encrypted messaging; providers keep no record of private communications.

That’s all good to keep national security concerns (and illicit affairs) on the down low? Not so fast.

There’s a little thing called the “Presidential Records Act.” It requires elected officials to keep track of all communications.

For those who care about this sort of thing, it’s driving them crazy – Kitty-Dukakis-guzzling-rubbing-alcohol sort of crazy.

Experts say these officials are breaking retention laws and hiding from public scrutiny. The whole deal is a recipe for corruption, they warn.

Here’s some advice for all involved. If you don’t want anyone to see it, don’t put it in writing, don’t say it on the phone. Ane when you talk in person and cover your mouth like an NFL coach on the sidelines. Capish?

Get on Predict It, and take your best guess on how long before an official charge is made. A month? A week? Place your bets.

If you aren’t familiar with Predict It, you’re really missing the boat. Think Vegas + politics.

Forget sports betting, try making a bet on how many tweets Trump will spit out in a week.

The app is advertised as a “real-money political prediction market.” If you think you know politics, log on — before Predict It becomes illegal too, that is.

There is a lot to take in here. Let’s close with America’s favorite animated family — The Simpsons.

Did you know that in an episode aired 2000 (“Bart to the Future”), guess who was president? That’s right, Donald Trump.

It’s all real folks, and it’s coming at you like a warm can of Budweiser shaken for about five minutes. You just can’t make this stuff up, it’s called 2017.

Who knows? Maybe I will run for office. Let’s do this!

 ___

Blake Dowling is CEO of Aegis Business Technologies and writes for several organizations. He can be reached at dowlingb@aegisbiztech.com

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‘Hamilton’ cast to sing at Super Bowl 51

Original cast members of the Tony Award-winning Broadway hit “Hamilton: An American Musical,” will sing “America the Beautiful” during pregame festivities at Super Bowl 51, the NFL and Fox announced Friday.

The performance by Renee Elise Goldsberry, Jasmine Cephas Jones and Phillipa Soo, who starred as the Schuyler Sisters, will be televised live by Fox prior to kickoff Feb. 5 when the Atlanta Falcons face the New England Patriots.

Beginning with Vicki Carr in 1977, “America the Beautiful” has been sung eight other times prior to the Super Bowl, most recently in 2013 when Jennifer Hudson and 26 children from Newtown, Connecticut, sang the song in advance of Super Bowl 47.

The “Hamilton” cast joins Luke Bryan, who will perform the national anthem, and Lady Gaga, who will headline the halftime show.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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2 central Florida students arrested in school shooting plot

Authorities say two students who were plotting a Columbine-style attack at a central Florida middle school have been arrested.

Sumter County Sheriff’s officials said in a news release that the boys, ages 13 and 14, planned the attack at The Villages Charter Middle School for Friday.

Deputies say rumors about a shooting began circulating Tuesday. The 13-year-old was questioned as he arrived at school Wednesday and told deputies he and another boy had talked about the plot. When the older boy was questioned, he mentioned the 1999 Columbine shooting that killed 12 students and a teacher at the Colorado high school.

Neither boy had weapons at school, but deputies say guns were found at their homes when they were arrested Thursday.

They’ve been charged with conspiracy to commit murder.

Republished with the permission of The Associated Press.

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