Despite its small size, Tavares becomes a hub for intermodal travel.

TAVARES — Think inter-modal transportation hub, and you probably think Jacksonville or New Orleans, maybe closer to home in Tampa or Orlando – but not little old Tavares.

And yet, Tavares has all the ingredients to become just that.

A float plane taxis out from the shore in December at the Tavares seaplane base and marina.

This Lake County city has trains, planes and boats — including two water taxis.  And while the Lake County public bus system is not extensive, it does exist.  The focal point of it all is the seaplane base and marina in downtown Tavares.
On a visit earlier this month, there were a handful of amphibious flying boats and float planes on the ramp, several float planes on the shore,
dozens of boats (mainly pontoons) at the boat slips, the odd speed boat on the lake, the occasional pedestrian-with-dog on the walkways, a fair amount of traffic at the restaurant on site, and on the veranda of the two-story wooden “Prop Shop,” an off-duty pilot was relaxing in the sun, playing his “axe,” and singing along.

Greg “Coop” Cooperman plays a mellow accordion and a mean jazz harmonica, and does not have a bad singing voice. A resident of Alaska, Cooperman says, “I’m here to fly seaplanes in the warm weather.”

Around the corner, on another rocking chair, facility manager Captain John Ruggeri took in the scenery and noted, “I have the best office in the world …
I’ve been blessed.”

Reflecting on the impact seaplanes are having locally, Ruggeri say that at the nearby restaurant, whenever a seaplane lands or takes off, “everything
stops.”

An amphibious flying boat taxies into the water on Jan. 12 at the Tavares seaplane base and marina.

At this point, there are not a lot of seaplanes at Tavares.  Ruggeri says that the busiest “normal” day they’ve had was 14 planes “on the
ramp,” and that opening day on April 10, 2010, they had 48.

The facility has two water taxis, obtained as a federal grant. At this point, the taxis only operate during special events, providing a scenic way to travel
between the cities of Tavares and Mount Dora, both on Lake Dora. There isn’t yet the demand to make regular runs between the two cities.  The train tracks run right by the seaplane base.  Right now, the only train traffic is the occasional excursion, run by the Eustis-based Florida Rail
Adventures.  The tracks themselves, however, are central to a plan to run commuter rail from Orlando into Lake County, along the U.S. 441 corridor.

The story of the Tavares Seaplane Base & Marina started in 2004, with the shuttering of a large citrus packing plant on Lake Dora in downtown Tavares.  With all that waterfront real estate opening up, city officials got creative in their search for ways to revitalize downtown.  Searching for a niche, they became “America’s Seaplane City.”

Birds scatter from a dock at the Tavares seaplane base and marina.

The “Prop Shop” is housed in a replica of the 1871 Woodlea House.  The original, considered one of Tavares’ most important historic structures, was destroyed by arson in 2007.
For more information about activities at the seaplane base, visit the city’s Website at www.tavares.org.

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com

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City leaders remember the devastating earthquake in Haiti one year later.

ORLANDO – For Marjory Sheba, the images were so strong and horrific, so quick to scar the psyche, that she recalled them through words of poetry.

“Three-hundred and sixty-five days and counting,” Sheba said.  “Our people are suffering.  They’ve suffered before, but now their hearts are tearing.”

Wednesday marked the one year anniversary of the devastating earthquake that caused so much damage, destruction and death in the nation of Haiti. It was a catastrophic magnitude 7.0 earthquake, with an epicentre near the town of Leogane, about 16 miles west of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Price.  It happened on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2010, and by Jan. 24, at least 52 aftershocks measuring 4.5 or greater had been recorded. It’s been estimated that three million people were impacted by the quake, with up to 234,000 killed.

“The Earth shook and swallowed us in,” said Sheba, a resident of Haiti who su

People attending the "Remembering Haiti ... The Earthquake" one year commemoration brought along donation goods for the victims.

rvived the devastation, and was in Orlando on Wednesday to take part in a ceremony marking the one year anniversary date.

“Massacred our loved ones and families,” she said.  “Help did come from distant shores. Ninety days – billions raised.  But we died in massive numbers, still.”

Sheba was one of several speakers who took part in “Remembering Haiti … The Earthquake,” a commemoration ceremony sponsored by Orlando City Commissioner Samuel B. Ings, and held in the main rotunda of Orlando City Hall.  It was an event that featured Haiti food, music, dancing, and an continued effort to collect donations for the people of Haiti, with a list of recommended items that included toiletries, new and gently used clothing, school supplies, sporting goods, and more.

Dominique Mathurin sings the Star Spangled Banner while Monica May, host of the "Remembering Haiti ... The Earthquake" ceremony looks on at Orlando City Hall.

But it was also a time to solumnly mark the terrible loss of life in that nation, and the challenges that face ongoing relief efforts for the victims of the quake.

“This time last year at approximately 4:15 p.m., the first foundations were torn across borders in Haiti,” said Monica May, the host of the Tom Joyner Morning Show and news/community affairs director at STAR 94.5 COX Radio station in Orlando.  “A sound like none we have ever heard was heard at this time in Haiti.  We are here tonight to remember Haiti, to remember the lives that were lost, to remember the families that were lost.”

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, whose district includes parts of Orlando, said she got a congressional briefing last week about the situation in Haiti, and it continues to frustrate members of Congress that “billions of dollars was allocated to the people of Haiti, and they’re still waiting.”

Brown blamed that on the disputed Nov. 28 Haitian presidential election.  The results have been held up due to allegations of fraud, and there have been calls for a new election to be held.

“It’s an example of when the government doesn’t work, the people suffer,” Brown said.  “There’s still over a million people in tents – in tents, still.  Not acceptable.”

Sheba described her people as being “sick from the corruption clutching our airs,” and said it was deplorable that a year later, they’re still waiting for so much of that help to arrive.

“The reason why we’re waiting still – just inexcuable,” she said.  “We cry out for justice.” 

Judeson Jean Juste, a survivor the earthquake in Haiti, sings the Haitian National Anthem at Orlando City Hall.

But there was also a sense of hope at the event, a feeling that people could be inspired to join in the relief effort, and come together as an extended family.

“We thank our family – those of you who are in the seats here with us,” May said, while Brown added, “Hopefully this is going to be a new beginning.”

Ings noted that the ceremony was “a cultural event that celebrates the Haitian culture while bringing awareness of the continued needs of the people of Haiti.”

And while he thanked those who made donations, and those who showed up to demonstrate their support for the people of Haiti, he also urged the guests at City Hall to enjoy the music, entertainment, and especially the food that was being provided there.

“The reception line is open,” Ings said, shortly before the speaking program started.  “So you’re welcome to all the food here.”

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.

Blessing or boondoogle: supporters and critics of a high speed bullet train await Gov. Scott’s decision.

ORLANDO – It’s a project that could help transform Central Florida’s economy, bringing thousands of badly needed construction jobs to the area, while relieving traffic congestion on Ilocal highways and creating a network of alternative transportation options …

No, it’s a costly and wasteful boondoggle, one that will saddle Florida taxpayers with expensive long term maintenance costs that the state can’t afford, all for a train that nobody will bother riding …

As 2011 starts, the debate over a high speed bullet train from Cocoa Beach to Orlando and then on to Tampa rages on, and it’s going to be up to new Gov. Rick Scott to make the final decision on the project.  Scot was a skeptic of the high speed rail system during his gubernatorial campaign last year, and his political supporters are counting on the governor to kill a project they view as costing far too much money, while offering too little in the way of a payback.

“We do not want him to be endorsing the rail program,” said Peg Dunmire, chairman of the Florida Tea Party, which endorsed Scott in last year’s Republican primary.  Scott, a South Florida businessman, defeated former state Attorney General Bill McCollum in the August 2010 primary.

Peg Dunmire, chairman of the Florida Tea Party, thinks most people want the freedom their cars offer, and won't ride a high speed train.

Doug Guetzloe, host of The Guetzloe Report radio talk show and a longtime critic of the train, said the governor may have no choice but to kill the high speed rail project, since the state is facing a huge budget deficit due to declining tax revenues.

“Scott’s got an estimated $3.5 billion budget deficit in this fiscal year,” Guetzloe said.  “He’s either got to cut spending or raise revenues, that’s all you can do.”

Since the governor has pledged not to raise taxes and to look for ways to cut them further to help spur the economy, Guetzloe said that means steep cuts in state spending.

“Our Constitution requires a balanced budget,” he said.   “Where do you get the money without raising taxes? He says he won’t raise taxes, but those are very serious cuts. He could start by turning down money for rail.”

In 2009, the Obama administration signed on to the construction of a high speed line between Orlando and Tampa, using funding from the federal stimulus bill. After announcing the administration’s support for the project, the Federal Railroad Administration granted Florida $1.25 billion to help build the train route.

But critics say Florida will still have to fund the rest of the construction costs, along with the long term maintenance bill as well.

“There’s no source of funding for the operating costs,” Dunmire said.  “And we’re getting this money from the federal government – which doesn’t have the money to begin with.”

Dunmire and Guetzloe noted that last November, voters in Osceola, Polk and Hillsborough counties voted down ballot referendums that would have raised taxes to pay for road building projects or new or expanded public transportation systems.  While those votes could simply be viewed as an anti-tax message, Dunmire said, it also signals skepticism about people giving up their cars to take a train on a fixed route to their jobs, health care providers or shopping needs.

“It’s the wrong technology,” she said.  “Americans like their cars.  We like to decide when to go, and where.”

But the project’s supporters think Scott will ultimately get behind it.

Paul Senft, director of the Economic Development Council in Haines City and a strong supporter of the high speed train, said new Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio came to the Sunshine State’s rescue by turning down federal money for rail projects.  That freed up more than a billion dollars in federal stimulus money, and shortly afterwards, the White House diverted another $342 million to Florida.

Paul Senft, Haines City's economic development director, thinks cities across Central Florida can boost their economic prospects if residents have easy access to a commuter train.

“The fact that some other states reejected the funds and Florida picked up a tremendous amount of extra money, that helped a lot because the local investment became smaller,” Senft said. “The construction cost has become smaller and smaller as the federal government has given us more and more money. I think we’ll be in good shape on the high speed rail.”

Senft has been supporting the rail line because it would include stops at Walt Disney World, about 20 minutes from Haines City, and in Lakeland, the largest city in Polk County.  He believes communities like Haines City can sell themselves to businesses interested in relocating to the region by reminding employers of the easy access workers would have to rail.

“There’s not any regions in the world that are truly economic regions that don’t have mass transit,” Senft said.  “It will help us, image-wise, and with higher wage jobs.”

But Guetzloe countered that the high speed train will ultimately cost the state far more in the long run than the federal investment suggests, and he said Scott risks burdening the state with a massive long term price tag if he signs on to the project. 

Doug Guetzloe thinks Gov. Rick Scott needs to stick to his opposition to a high speed train from Orlando to Tampa.

“It’s an unfunded liability,” Guetzloe said.  “We don’t have $17.6 billion in the next 20 years to operate the train. I think he (Scott) will be hard pressed to flip on that one.”

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