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Tour stop suggestions for GOP presidential hopefuls

Welcome to Florida, Republican presidential hopefuls! We understand you'll be spending some time touring our fair state before the Sept. 24 straw poll. We hope you make yourselves at home. Maybe you'll even stick around. We've got plenty of property for sale. But, listen: We're not just The Villages We're widely diverse in age and income and heritage and political ideals, with nearly 19 million residents from across the globe situated on a narrow peninsula that sticks out like a thumb. We're hard to peg, unpredictable. If you want to address some of the most important issues we're facing, you have to know where to stop the bus. And so we offer this guide to places that probably aren't on your schedule, but should be.

1. The Free Clinic, St. Petersburg

The Free Clinic tries to be a safety net for our chunk of the 49.9 million Americans who have no health insurance.

Always busy is its health center, which tries to reach folks before they have to seek emergency room care. The clinic operates on grants and donations, and its tiny paid staff relies on volunteer doctors and nurses. The clinic had some 6,400 patient visits last year and is seeing more this year.

Its food pantry — which distributes food to 56 kitchens, pantries and day cares — is stretched, too. Eight years ago, its partners were requesting food for 35,000 people a year, said Ken Murphy. Now that's how many they feed each month.

"A lot of people now who are coming in, they're embarrassed," Murphy said. "They say, 'This is the first time I've ever asked for help. I've lost my job, and I don't know where to turn to.' "

2. Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance, Tampa

Inside what used to be a shopping mall on North Florida Avenue, the scene is typically the same: An oversized lobby filled with dozens of people waiting to talk to a job counselor or use one of the computers to search for a job. They want to work.

You'll notice that predominant are the faces of those older than 50. They've been downsized. But there are young people, too, hit especially hard during the recession.

And here's a number: 981,000. That's Florida's job deficit. That's the number of jobs the state would have to create to make up for losses during the recession and to keep up with population growth. You want to talk jobs? This is a good place to start.

3. Connerton, Land O'Lakes

Drive north out of Tampa on U.S. 41, and keep driving, and eventually you come to Connerton. It's one of the many such communities in the bay area that were all but dead on arrival. Remember back when it somehow seemed to make sense to build unnecessarily oversized houses on the outer edges of metropolitan areas?

Thoughts of long commutes were tempered by gas prices that were artificially low. Flimsy financing was too good to be true. Enthusiastic billboards went up: NEW TOWN! At the turn of the century, there was a fantastical 30-year vision, talk of Pasco County's biggest city. What once was wide-open ranchland is now ... so many empty lots.

It would be an honest setting to discuss any or all of the following: Foreclosures. Energy policies. Public transportation. The contracting middle class. Maybe you could call the Connerton execs. They were laid off in July.

4. Parking lot, Immokalee

During harvest, around sunup, the parking lot by the former Pantry Shelf fills with a thousand or more farm workers, men and women, mostly living 10 or 12 to a single-wide trailer. Some are here illegally. They wait for buses to take them into the fields where they pick tomatoes until evening, earning 50 cents for every 32 pounds of tomatoes they pick, a rate that hasn't changed much since 1980. The average worker brings home between $10,000 and $12,500 a year, according to the Department of Labor.

Good place to talk about immigration reform, the DREAM Act and basic human rights.

5. Shuttles Bar & Grill, Merritt Island

Shuttles is the Space Coast's space bar. On the walls of the closest watering hole to Kennedy Space Center are autographed pictures of astronauts. And now it's a second home to some of the smartest unemployed people in Florida.

The unemployment rate in the state is high. It's even higher in Brevard County. That's in large part because of the end of the shuttle program. Thousands of workers lost their jobs this summer, and for every worker at Kennedy Space Center, according to the local chamber of commerce, almost three more people in the area rely on that worker's salary in the economy.

The question is not just how to create jobs. It's how to create good jobs. The folks on the stools at Shuttles probably have some thoughts.

6. Riverside Arts Market, Jacksonville

Every Saturday a bunch of people gather under the Fuller Warren Bridge to buy and sell art and produce, to eat and drink and listen to live music. The thing that connects many of them is a love for the St. Johns River.

Enter Georgia-Pacific, a paper mill in Palatka that has plans to pipe wastewater 4 miles to the St. Johns. The mill hasn't been able to meet water quality standards in Rice Creek, where it dumps around 20 million gallons of wastewater a day. This, environmentalists insist, will further harm the St. Johns, when all Georgia-Pacific has to do is invest in new technologies to treat the wastewater.

What better place to talk about jobs versus environmental regulations? If Riverkeeper executive director Jimmy Orth is around, he'll ask you to take a look at all the restaurants, marinas, outfitters and homeowners who benefit from a healthy river. "Protecting the environment is good for business and it's good for the economy overall," Orth says.

7. Highway 192, Seminole County

Skip Disney World, the Happiest Place on Earth, and go just down the road to Highway 192, where 67 weekly rate motels house about 500 children whose families have lost their homes. School buses pick them up in parking lots.

Earlier this year on 60 Minutes, in a report on what CBS called "the largest American generation to be raised in hard times since the Great Depression," some of the Orlando-area kids cried talking about how it was often hard to sleep because their empty stomachs hurt so bad.

This summer, in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties, the school districts and local charities helped feed more than 12,000 kids who from August to May rely on the breakfast and lunch provided at school. There are some 1,700 homeless students in Seminole alone.

Maybe go visit some of them, tell them it's going to be okay, and how, and when.

8. The Quad, Gainesville

Frisbees and footballs zip between the towering oaks that shade most of Plaza of the Americas on the University of Florida campus. Scents from the daily Hare Krishna lunch serving lines blend with the humid, midday air. Hundreds of students lie in the grass and study between classes as other Gators from Greek, religious and political organizations hold signs or discuss their ideas. It's the heart of the university's free thought.

These students will face some troubling statistics upon graduation. Young workers have been the age group hardest hit by the recession. The average unemployment rate for those in the labor force who are 16 to 24 years old was 21.6 percent in 2010, compared with just under 10 percent for older age groups. This is the same pattern as for the United States overall, except young workers in Florida continued to lose jobs at a much greater rate from 2009 to 2010. Since 2007, unemployment among young workers has increased 12.4 percentage points, about double that for older age groups. Beyond that, college graduates are the fastest-growing group of consumers who have filed for bankruptcy protection in the past five years, according to a new study.

Take your shoes off. Try the tofu. Talk to tomorrow's workforce.

9. Buddy Ward And Sons, Apalachicola

Head over to Buddy Ward and Sons 13 Mile Seafood and Trucking Co., where Tommy Ward tries against the odds to keep his family's oyster business alive.

They like Tommy around here. If the town needs something, Tommy goes to Tallahassee to speak for a place where more than 1,000 residents have licenses to harvest the world famous Apalachicola oysters. Some families have been in the business since the Civil War.

The oil spill in the gulf hurt business because BP hired many oystermen to lay boom or look for oil. Nobody was harvesting, so the take last year was smaller. Now that the oystermen are back to work, there's lingering concern that gulf seafood isn't safe, even though the oil never showed up here.

For folks with generations of skin in the game, those false perceptions mixed with a slow economy mean hard and uncertain times. Extra points if you have some oysters.

Staff writers John Woodrow Cox, Curtis Krueger, Craig Pittman, Letitia Stein, Charlotte Sutton, Jeff Klinkenberg and Lisa Buie contributed to this report.

Tour stop suggestions for GOP presidential hopefuls 09/18/11 [Last modified: Monday, September 19, 2011 5:08pm]
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