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    High School graduates in a Florida county devastated by Hurricane Michael will wear a cord to commemorate their resilience since the storm hit last fall. The Panama City News Journal reports that Bay County seniors will have the light blue cords as part of their graduation gowns. Arnold High School Principal Britt Smith in Panama City said the students overcame adversity and demonstrated great character in the challenges they faced in the aftermath of Michael, a Category 5 hurricane that damaged and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses last October. Former Panama City resident Jamee Graff organized the effort and raised money to buy the 1,430 cords. The color is called robin egg blue, and is supposed to represent stability and depth. ___ Information from: The (Panama City, Fla.) News Herald, http://www.newsherald.com
  • A Florida woman was airlifted to a hospital after an alligator attack. Brevard County Fire Rescue tweeted Saturday that the woman was attacked near a wilderness park near about 15 miles (24 kilometers) west of Cape Canaveral. The department said the woman had significant bite wounds on her leg and flank. It said the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission would investigate the attack. The department wouldn't provide any more information on the woman, citing patient privacy rights.
  • LAKELAND — In the course of one day, Amy Sharpe might be a snow queen able to conjure ice storms, a damsel with tower-length tresses and a mermaid princess. Whatever it takes to generate glee for children. Sharpe, a Lakeland resident, portrays more than 50 characters, from Snow White to Wonder Woman, as founder and operator of Dreams Come True Entertainment. The company, which Sharpe started in 2012, provides characters from fairy tales and superhero stories to attend birthday parties and other events. She estimates that she has attended perhaps 2,000 kids' gatherings since first appearing as Belle from 'Beauty and the Beast' at a girl's birthday party seven years ago. 'You're making a difference for somebody every time you put on that outfit,' Sharpe said. 'This might be the only time they meet Cinderella. You're going to be in that family's memories forever.' Sharpe, a graduate of Lakeland High School and Florida Southern College, has operated the business out of her home and vehicle since its founding. She hopes finally to secure a permanent venue in Lakeland — 'my own big princess castle' — this summer, a step that would allow her to stage such group events as tea parties and storytelling sessions and put the business on sounder financial ground. 'Since I started, I've never paid myself once,' Sharpe said. 'I've been subsisting on pixie dust.' Instead, she said, she has directed all profits toward costumes and other company expenses. An established location would also enable Sharpe to raise more money for charity events, a key element of her business. Dreams Come True Entertainment will hold one of its two annual fundraisers, the Royal True Love Fairytale Ball, on Sunday. May 17, at The Event Factory in Town 'n' Country, near Tampa. Sharpe, 32, said she has been intrigued by fables and drawn toward performing since early childhood. As a girl, she would organize productions based on movies or plays, casting her sister and cousins in various roles during annual family beach vacations at Anna Maria Island. Sharpe's family had annual passes to Walt Disney World and visited regularly during her childhood. She said she later worked at the theme park, driving a boat on the Jungle Cruise and serving as a character attendant. ___ Multiple personalities The idea for the business arose in 2011 when Sharpe noticed costumes for fairy tale characters being sold on Etsy, a commerce website for artists and craftspeople. She got in touch with a woman in California and wound up buying some 20 wigs from her. 'Since I've been so familiar with fairy tales, I thought it would be the perfect job,' Sharpe said. 'I was only going to start with a few characters, but I ended up thinking, 'Goodness, what if somebody else wants something I didn't have?' So I got all the characters I could think of that someone might want.' Sharpe, a slender woman with a youthful bearing, said she was jittery before portraying Belle at that first birthday party. Since then, she has expanded her repertoire and grown comfortable in all of her roles. She estimates she now owns 60 wigs and about 150 costumes. Jessica Wilt, Sharpe's best friend, helps with the business, serving as a character attendant and photographer. 'I was amazed whenever I first saw her in character,' Wilt said. 'She is so good at staying in character, like if someone will come ask her a question and try to trip her up, she always has an answer. Even older kids, if they start out not believing in her, they will believe she's the real one by the end of the party.' Though many of the characters resemble those popularized in animated Disney movies, Sharpe said most of them, from 'Cinderella' to 'Frozen,' derive from stories in the public domain. To elude the wrath of Disney's lawyers, Sharpe bills her company's characters as, for example, The Little Mermaid rather than Ariel and the Snow Queen rather than Elsa from 'Frozen.' The 2013 release of 'Frozen,' a computer-animated musical, spawned a glut of new character-appearance businesses trying to capitalize on the movie's popularity, Sharpe said. Her business declined for a few years, one of the periods she has taught as an income source. She now teaches part-time at a private school in Tampa. Sharpe said she has worked virtually every weekend since creating her business, appearing at up to nine events in a day. Her rates range from $150 for a 30-minute 'Pixie Dust Package,' including a story or sing- or dance-along and photo opportunities, to $400 for a two-hour, 'Happily Ever After' package. Sharpe has recruited a company of part-time helpers to portray princes and female characters, such as the Arabian Princess, whose ethnicity she can't convey. She has found some part-timers through auditions and discovered others on her own, such as a waiter at a local seafood restaurant who displayed a natural rapport with Sharpe's niece. For the vast majority of events, though, Sharpe herself inhabits the character. She has learned to apply her makeup in under 20 minutes, and she has become adept at changing costumes in her vehicle. ___ Maintaining illusion Sharpe employs wigs for all of the characters, with a notable exception. Her actual hair extends to her lower back because she said the flowing mane enhances her appearance when she plays a mermaid. She also enlists her own pets for events — Pascal, her pet chameleon, when she plays Rapunzel, and Ichabod, her second pet frog, as a sidekick to the Frog Princess. Sharpe said she researches the backgrounds of all her personas so that she can maintain 'character integrity,' only speaking or behaving in keeping with the fairy tale or superhero story. 'Once you put on the costume, you are 100 percent the character,' she said. Children — and even adults — sometimes ask Sharpe to display the powers of the character she is portraying, such as the Snow Queen's capacity to manipulate ice and snow. When she first added that character, Sharpe would say she couldn't summon snow outside the queen's own habitat, but now she deploys a snow-making device at parties. Sharpe said she typically performs at birthday parties for girls in the 2-to-6 age range. She said some parents have hired her to perform at events for a series of their children. Wilt said she still delights in seeing the reactions of the young children. 'They usually freak out, especially if it's (the Snow Queen) or something big,' Wilt said. 'Sometimes they get a little overwhelmed and cry and seem upset, but they just need to calm down. It's adorable.' Sharpe has also performed for adults with intellectual disabilities, such as a recent birthday party for a woman turning 38. Sharpe said she has welcomed any opportunity to help charitable causes since forming her business. She stages two major events each year, a True Love Ball in the spring and a Holiday Ball in December, and she said all proceeds will be used for her company's charity work. Sharpe also attends fundraising events such as the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation's annual walk in Munn Park and the International Rett Syndrome Foundation's Strollathon at Lake Parker Park. She said she also makes free appearances at birthday parties for children with medical problems or special needs and sometimes visits children at local hospitals. Though her business is oriented toward children, Sharpe said she occasionally visits a nursing home to bestow cheer upon the residents. 'I believe for Mother's Day last year, I came as Snow White and sang to them,' she said. 'One of the older gentlemen was holding my hand when I was singing, 'Someday My Prince Will Come'.' ___ Information from: The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.), http://www.theledger.com
  • A Fort Myers nursery owner is competing for one of Florida's coveted full-service medical marijuana licenses and facing one challenge after another — even suing the state for a license he says he's owed. The owner of FTG nursery, John Allen, and his partner William Reese, a third-generation farmer, hand-delivered their application to the Department of Health last November with a cashier's check for $60,830 to grow, process and distribute cannabis. Florida law requires the health department to raise any issues with the application in 30 days and make a decision within 90, or issue a license. None of that happened, Allen said. 'The statute is there for a reason. If the agency can ignore it then why is it there?' FTG's attorney Craig Varn said. A federal judge has since ordered the health department to show why the nursery should not be given a default license as the law requires. FTG also had hoped to stop the agency from awarding eight new licenses until its application is reviewed, but that request was denied. 'We didn't want them to run out of licenses before ours was reviewed,' Varn said, They're not the only ones concerned. Florida first gave a limited nod to medical cannabis, legalizing it with broad voter approval in 2016. But its chokehold on who could provide the weed has ruffled feathers from the start. — The state created a medical marijuana super license — the right to grow, process and dispense in a given territory — so only the biggest companies could compete. — Then it invited a rain of lawsuits for what a judge called its 'flawed' scoring of the applications. — And, instead of opening the door to all, the state awarded the next round of licenses as a settlement to companies that didn't make the first cut. 'That's half a billion dollars worth of licenses given to the least qualified applicants,' said David Vukelja of Louis del Favero Orchids, a long-time Tampa orchid grower that's also suing for a default license. The health department says it's beholden to neither of them. 'There has not been, nor is there any, open application period. Accordingly, (the application) was premature, untimely, and did not trigger any obligation for the Department to take action,' it wrote to both nurseries. Newly elected Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who took office after medical marijuana was legalized, would like to see a more democratic application process. 'I'm doing everything in my power to make sure the treatment costs go down and assure we have a diversity of patients, treatment centers and growers,' Fried said. Currently, the state has 14 medical marijuana license holders. When the number of enrolled patients reaches 300,000 — it's already topped 200,000 with about 10,000 enrolling per week — four more licenses will be offered to all applicants, Fried said. Florida's first five license holders, meanwhile, control 82 percent of its cannabis dispensaries, prompting Marijuana Business Daily to dub the state 'an oligopoly rather than a highly competitive market.' Those five get first crack at a market that analysts expect to top $1 billion in 2020. As an example of how profitable this can be, one of the first licensed nurseries, Gainesville-based San Felasco, recently sold 100 percent of its shares to Harvest Health of Arizona for $65.6 million, a license it obtained with Fried's help during her days as a medical marijuana lobbyist. ___ Made in Southwest Florida FTG, which stands for Florida Tree Growers, has been cultivating palms and veggies in Southwest Florida for 36 years, although Allen didn't always own it. Growing up a city kid in traditionally African-American Dunbar, he played sports with Reese's sons and worked summers with them on the farm. As Florida got serious about medical cannabis, Reese tapped Allen — by then a Fortune 100 portfolio manager — to help get the business off the ground. 'It's the future,' he said of the decision to turn from conventional farming to medical marijuana. As to why he chose Allen over scores of investors who courted him, 'John's real smart and he's real trustworthy,' Reese said, 'I'm 71 and still use a flip phone. Somebody's got to run it when we cross the finish line.' And a long run it appears to be. Following the state's early application requirements, the pair raised 400,000 Eureka and Pygmy Date Palm seedlings to six inches in order to demonstrate their grower chops — only to see the plants whisked away by Hurricane Irma in 2017. They've been preparing for this license so long that the cultivation of seedlings is no longer required. 'It's difficult for me because the return on investment in medical marijuana is over 400 percent right now,' said Allen, who likens the market to a latter-day Gold Rush. 'In real estate, 18 percent would be considered a great return.' But the opportunity for the big bucks is fleeting. 'A small farmer coming in late will get pushed out by the more established players when the market corrects itself,' he explained. 'That's why this is so important to me.' If awarded a license, FTG will be the first full-service medical marijuana provider in Southwest Florida — as well as its first black-owned license holder. ___ A rock and a hard place In a state where systemic racism has reduced many black farmers to working leased land, Allen, a majority owner, is a rare Florida commodity. Not that he needs a special consideration for that — Varn, his attorney, says FTG is more qualified than many of the nurseries already licensed — but Allen thinks the state should do more to let certified minority businesses into the game, of which he's one. A license does exist for black farmers, not for inclusion's sake, but, for the same reason as some other medical marijuana licenses, to help the state back its way out of a lawsuit. Initially, Florida allowed only nurseries with 30 consecutive years in business to apply — an impossibility for many black farmers who traditionally faced lending discrimination to keep their businesses afloat. The rule was declared unconstitutional. A carve-out license was created with two conditions, neither of which Allen meets: — The farmer must belong to the Florida Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association — this, too, was shot down in court; and — The farmer must belong to the federal class action known as Pigford. Pigford farmers are those who sued the USDA for discrimination on the basis of race, and, in 1999, won. 'When it was recognized that black (Pigford) farmers would not have been able to receive a loan to meet the 30-year requirement, the solution was to give them a shot,' Fried said. Many of the farmers are now nearing or past retirement Allen, who's 42, didn't own a farm in the 1980s when the case was litigated. 'We fought against limiting it. We were fighting for all black farmers,' said Florida Black Farmers association co-founder Latresia Wilson, whose organization challenged the original medical marijuana licensing rule. 'But we were dealing with a lack of understanding. There were legislators who didn't understand that they had already created a special class when they picked the first five licensees who were their buddies,' Wilson said. 'Pigford legitimized our case.' In a legal opinion letter to Allen, Tamieka Range, an Orlando attorney, wrote, 'Limiting the carve-out to just one Pigford class member severely limits black farmers ability to participate in the medical marijuana industry.' Reaching out to Black Caucus members, Allen suggested broader language — for example, 'qualifying black farmers' who meet the state's eligibility criteria — but none responded. Fried has other ideas about democratizing the state's gold crop. 'There have been problems from day one for the medical marijuana field,' the ag commissioner acknowledged. 'When we create the hemp program that is under my jurisdiction, we will have an open market from the start, and it will not be a $70,000 application fee.' Instead of a super license to grow, process and dispense, a business could opt into just one activity. 'Everyone will be able to participate, from the farmer with five acres to the farmer with 500,' Fried said. Allen thinks black farmers could do well with hemp. 'In hemp you have a program focused on what most farmers have been doing their whole lives — cultivating,' he said. 'A black farmer could even lease land and sell the crop.' Anticipating the opportunity, FTG is also developing a hemp program that includes Native American as well as black growers in multiple states, he said. But he and Reese still want the $60-plus-million gold ring. They hope their default license suit will gain them access to the next round of medial marijuana licenses, if not the most recent, and expect a decision in late June. 'I know where this ends,' attorney Varn said. 'Absent some settlement or litigation, we will end up in appellate court.' ___ Information from: The (Fort Myers, Fla.) News-Press, http://www.news-press.com
  • The winning numbers in Saturday evening's drawing of the Florida Lottery's 'Lotto' game were: 29-32-48-50-51-53 (twenty-nine, thirty-two, forty-eight, fifty, fifty-one, fifty-three) Estimated jackpot: $3 million
  • The winning numbers in Saturday evening's drawing of the Florida Lottery's 'Lotto XTRA' game were: 02 (two)
  • Food deserts, or areas where there's nowhere to buy fresh, healthy food, don't just happen on their own. Everything from city codes to discriminatory lending practices have kept stores and developers from investing in neighborhoods. Now, city planners in Savannah are trying to write codes that attract grocery stores. As Marsha Buford drove around her neighborhood, West Savannah, recently, it was easy to notice a pattern in the stores she pointed out: mostly convenience stores and gas stations. One sign says 'supermarket,' but according to Buford, 'there's nothing super about the market, ok?' This majority black neighborhood is just under two miles from the shining gold dome of Savannah's city hall. But the nearest grocery stores are more than two and a half miles away. Buford is president of the neighborhood association, so she knows a lot of people and greeted them as we drove by. 'I was bringing her through the neighborhood to show her we don't have a grocery store, and we need one,' Buford called out to Lillie Howard from across the street. 'Yeah but you know why,' Howard replied, 'they say we don't have enough people out here.' Not having a grocery store makes things tough for residents like Howard and Varnell Middleton, who are sitting together. 'Got to go way up in Garden City to the grocery store. You don't have no car, how you gonna get up there? I know I sure can't walk with that stick up there,' Middleton said. Buford agreed. 'We can't walk to the grocery store,' she said. So how do you get a grocery store to open? It's complicated, but Lillie Howard's right: 'They need people that are gonna shop there. Period,' said Paula Kreissler with Healthy Savannah, a group that promotes health and nutrition. 'We're not talking about high rises,' Kreissler said. 'We're just talking about increasing the number of people in a neighborhood will get a store in there in a heartbeat.' A city's zoning ordinance affects how many people live in a neighborhood. Savannah's dates to 1960. Marcus Lotson of the Metropolitan Planning Commission said planners back then didn't account for things like food access. 'We know where the food deserts are in Savannah. And we think we can address that with zoning,' Lotson said. That means increasing density in some places, say allowing more units in an apartment building, in hopes more people will attract stores. It also means allowing stores where they didn't used to be because grocery chains are trying out smaller stores. 'Because some of these retailers are scaling down their size, now they can be placed in places where people live, or closer to where people live,' Lotson said. The new ordinance also prioritizes some types of stores over others. The main road bordering West Savannah, for instance, is currently a 'general business' zone. Under the new rules, it would be a 'community business' zone, designed to 'serve a community-wide market area.' That allows grocery stores but limits convenience stores and gas stations. Lotson said none of this will guarantee new grocery stores, but it could help. 'We still can't control the market, you know, and say 'grocery store A, we need you to set up a store right here,'' he said. 'That would be great, but all you can really do is make it easy for them.' The new zoning goes before the city council next month. If adopted, it would go into effect in September.
  • The winning numbers in Saturday evening's drawing of the Georgia Lottery's 'Fantasy 5' game were: 03-06-17-26-31 (three, six, seventeen, twenty-six, thirty-one) Estimated jackpot: $150,000
  • The winning numbers in Friday evening's drawing of the Georgia Lottery's 'Cash 3 Night' game were: 4-8-4 (four, eight, four)
  • The winning numbers in Friday evening's drawing of the Georgia Lottery's 'Cash 4 Night' game were: 8-9-8-2 (eight, nine, eight, two)