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Monday's Quick Hits: A model downtown, Melton's syrup, the gift of money and movie memories

If it can happen there ... : Met out-of-town friends for a drink at the Vinoy Renaissance hotel in St. Petersburg on Sunday night. Christmas lights up; sun going down over the nearby yacht basin; the town so packed with diners and drinkers and people just strolling around that it was tough to find a parking space.

Every time I go to St. Pete, I'm amazed at how far it's come from 20 years ago, when, though it was still derided as God's waiting room, it wasn't really. Homeless people seemed to far outnumber old ones.

Maybe it's too different from Brooksville to be a model for us, but it does show that people just plain like traditional downtowns.

And old buildings. Until its renovation in the 1990s, the gorgeous Vinoy was abandoned, and at one point all but left for dead. It got me thinking that maybe in another 20 years, I'll be able to treat visitors to the views from Hernando County's Chinsegut manor house.

In related news about old times: I visited the one guy in this part of Florida who may be more devoted to preserving history than anyone else I know — Steve Melton.

A farmer who lives in Pasco County, just over the Hernando line and in the farthest outskirts of the nearest urban hub, Trilby, Melton has built his own private museum — a barn and a barnyard full of old agricultural tools and tractors. And every year in early December, he holds a cane grinding and syrup boiling that was once a harvest-season ritual throughout the state. I'm not writing a whole bunch about it because the Times' Jeff Klinkenberg did the definitive story, with video, last year (tinyurl.com/c5s6f8j).

I will tell you, though, that my older son and I were on hand Saturday afternoon to witness that crucial, once-a-year moment when Melton determines the cane juice has been boiled down to the sweetness and thickness of syrup and gives the word for helpers to remove the heat from under the massive iron kettle.

"Pull the fire!" he commanded, and workers yanked the tray of smoking, sparkling coals into the yard.

We waited around long enough to see the still-warm product decanted into bottles, each one pasted with labels that called it "Melton's Machinery Museum 100 Percent Pure Sugar Cane Syrup," and took some home to serve with pancakes Sunday. Our judgment: It's earthier-tasting than maple syrup, more at home in Florida, and every bit as delicious.

I'll be researching recipes so next week I can deliver it on the proper old-Florida medium — hot, homemade biscuits.

A less-uplifting, modern subject: Remember the announcement in October that the state and county would pump $4 million in direct, long-term incentives into the expansion of Accuform Signs?

Did anyone else consider all the scrimping of public facilities — parks, universities, libraries — and think that maybe a big payoff to an already successful company was a sign of skewed priorities?

If so, nobody said it out loud that day, when Gov. Rick Scott showed up for a broken-record speech about job creation. And the owners of Accuform were treated so deferentially it was as if they were the ones giving us the money.

But, it seems, a little more attention is being paid to these deals and the way they've become an expected part of doing business.

Here's a link to the exhaustive New York Times investigation of the $80 billion spent on incentives nationally (tinyurl.com/cszfdof) and the Tampa Bay Times' Robert Trigaux's column that took a closer look at this trend in Florida (tinyurl.com/alg6cq2).

It's probably unreasonable to expect a county the size of Hernando to be the one to stop this incentives arms race. It's not unreasonable for us to make very sure companies that receive money deliver on their promises.

The guy talking to the empty chair ... : With my wife out of town this weekend, thought I'd treat myself and my sons to what I remembered as one of the great all-time guy movies, Unforgiven, which you might remember was produced and directed by its star, Clint Eastwood. Winning the 1992 Oscar for Best Picture, it helped make Eastwood's reputation. It supposedly showed he was a lot deeper than the guy with the limited range who made formulaic movies — bad guys don't get what they deserve; Eastwood gives it to them.

Some people have said it's a shame that such a great artist will now be remembered for his uncomfortable performance at this year's Republican National Convention.

What did I think after re-watching Unforgiven? Other than the scenes with Gene Hackman, I can't see why I or so many other people thought it was good. Eastwood was still limited, the plot still formulaic. And if he's remembered for talking to a chair, it really won't be that much of a shame.

Monday's Quick Hits: A model downtown, Melton's syrup, the gift of money and movie memories 12/10/12 [Last modified: Monday, December 10, 2012 11:44am]
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