Grab the good news when you can

ROGERS’ CHRISTMAS HOUSE: The final auction for the last items at Rogers’ Christmas House Village in May left behind only houses in need of demolition or a lot of care.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

ROGERS’ CHRISTMAS HOUSE: The final auction for the last items at Rogers’ Christmas House Village in May left behind only houses in need of demolition or a lot of care.

Just because I kind of like the idea of hope around this time of year, I will start and finish this, my annual year-end update of a few selected columns, with good news.

Good news is better when it's unexpected, and good news is usually unexpected, or at least rare, in Haiti. I went there looking for some glimmer of it in September, when I wrote about the foundation-laying ceremony for a hospital in the Central Plateau town of Mirebalais.

The hospital is being built by Partners in Health, which was founded by 1978 Hernando High grad Paul Farmer. In the wreckage that remained eight months after January's catastrophic earthquake, Partners was one of the few aid organizations making headway on the huge job of rebuilding the country. The highlight of its effort was plans for the modern, 320-bed teaching hospital.

Now — more than three months into a cholera epidemic and more than a month after disputed elections — progress remains steady.

Although Mirebalais is not far from the epicenter of the cholera epidemic and the resulting chaos briefly stalled construction, crews are now on the job six days a week, said Partners spokesman Andrew Marx.

Given the group's track record, I expect that about this time next year I'll be reporting some even better news: that the hospital is almost ready to open.

• • •

Quarry Preserve: It seemed like one of the most stunning reversals ever on plans for a big development in Hernando County — and the Quarry, by the way, would be a monster, with enough houses and apartments for 13,000 people, as well as factories, a town center and golf courses, all a few miles north of Brooksville.

Despite county approval, the state Department of Community Affairs notified the county it planned to issue a "noncompliance" order. The project would promote sprawl, the department said, and, though developers claimed it would be a real town, it wasn't really.

The order still stands, I guess, but how much will it mean if the agency that issued it is crumbling before our eyes. In the interest of "making good development happen," the transition team of Gov.-elect Rick Scott has suggested folding the DCA and the Department of Environmental Protection in with the Department of Transportation.

Something tells me combatting sprawl (or protecting the environment) won't be this mega-department's top priority. In any case, DCA secretary Tom Pelham, hands-down the best ever in this position, is on his way out. He announced his resignation in November, saying he wouldn't have "worked for Scott for a single day, even if I had been asked."

A hearing on the noncompliance order is scheduled before an administrative judge in April. In the meantime, the DCA is negotiating with the Quarry's lawyer, Jake Varn, to work out a settlement that will allow the project to be built. With all that's going on at the DCA, the least you can say is that Varn will have the upper hand.

• • •

Brad Ash: Of the 10 recent cycling deaths in the Tampa Bay area, Ash's may have been the most shocking. Not only was Ash, 41, a well-liked and respected math teacher in Dade City, but also he was riding his bike in what had seemed a safe refuge, rural eastern Pasco County. And from preliminary reports, he appeared to be doing it as safely as possible, wearing a helmet and riding with eastbound traffic near the edge of the lane on St. Joe Road.

Nearly three months have passed since the Oct. 4 wreck. And because no charges have been filed, a lot of my fellow cyclists think this means law enforcement has all but declared open season on cyclists in Pasco.

Though I don't understand why the investigation is taking so long, I think it's too early to make that leap. Florida Highway Patrol spokesman Sgt. Larry Kraus said the agency is still waiting for autopsy results. Because of limited staffing, he said, it's common for death investigations to take weeks and even months.

So, at this point, the update is this: Bike riders haven't forgotten Ash or the need to protect the rights of responsible riders like him.

• • •

Rogers' Christmas House Village: My colleague Tony Marrero covered this beautifully last week: The first Christmas season in nearly 40 years passed without Brooksville laying claim to a regional retail magnet for shoppers who really wanted to get into the spirit.

Hopeful former customers still walk up to the doors and peer into the windows, Marrero wrote; they wander to businesses across the street to ask what happened.

What do I have to add? Just that I drove by myself a few weeks ago and was stunned at how drab this collection of old houses looked without decorations — how desperately they are calling out for either demolition or, hopefully, a very caring owner.

One other impression when you see them as they are now: amazement that one woman — former owner Margaret "Weenie" Ghiotto — managed to make this place as Christmassy as the North Pole. I'll never figure it out.

• • •

Don't ask, don't tell: Predictions can make columnists look bad, so we generally steer clear of them. But after looking around the county — at the diminishing signs of prejudice against gays and lesbians and reporting on the welcome mat for gay members put out by Spring Hill United Church of Christ — I predicted that the military's policy forbidding openly gay soldiers from fighting for their country would soon be out the door.

And now it is, much sooner than I expected. After passing both houses of Congress, the repeal was signed two weeks ago by President Barack Obama.

Just like that, 17 years of institutionalized bigotry — gone.

• • •

Coney Island Drive Inn: If any current business owner is carrying on Ghiotto's spirit it's Blair Hensley. But instead of building a landmark, he's maintaining one, Coney Island, and did so this year despite being picked on by a corporate bully.

In May, Subway (33,000 outlets) decided that Coney Island (one) didn't have the right to use the term "footlong,'' which it had been using since at least 1963. A Subway lawyer sent a letter threatening a lawsuit if Coney Island didn't "cease and desist" from using the word in its advertising.

After the chain's corporate offices were flooded by e-mails from Hensley's irate customers, one of whom created a Facebook page advocating a Subway boycott, its lawyers backed down. It didn't mean to pick on hot dog joints, its spokesperson explained, just sandwich shops.

This was only one highlight for Hensley's restaurant. It also celebrated its 50th birthday and was chosen by the county's Tourist Development Council as the local landmark featured on the council's annual Christmas ornament.

Christmas … landmarks … Hensley.

Anybody thinking what I'm thinking?

Grab the good news when you can 12/30/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 30, 2010 8:05pm]

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