Taking a look back at Osceola in 2013
By Ken Jackson
Osceola County may have celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2012, but that doesn’t mean 2013 was any less memorable.
As the year closes, here’s a look back at the topics that shaped 2013 and had county residents thinking and reacting …
At the first-ever State of the County Address on April 30, County Commissioner Frank Attkisson said he wanted Osceola County to be the leader in Central Florida’s economic recovery.
“History will look back at the path we take. Other areas like to talk about jobs. We choose to deliver careers,” he said. “I hope people will reach for the American Dream and do it right here, what we think is the best place to live.”
During the year Kissimmee welcomed Chik-fil-A (and its camped-out fans), Wawa came to St. Cloud, and a digital imaging company signed on to bring more than 60 high-paying jobs to office space at U.S. Highway 192 and Bill Beck Boulevard. But one of the best signs of established growth came when the Mecum Auto Auction made its annual stop at Osceola Heritage Park in January.
More than 100,000 visitors attended the 10-day event where some 3,000 cars went up for bid, including private collection pieces that fetched bids in the $250,000 range. All were records for the Kissimmee show.
At the end of March, one of the core pieces of the area’s commerce was saved when Kissimmee Gateway Airport was spared from having its control tower closed due to the federal government sequester. The Federal Aviation Authority agreed to keep funding the Kissimmee tower and 22 others, but announced 149 other towers nationwide would lose their funding.
“It is a tremendous relief to know we will be able to safely operate and continue to bring economic benefit to our community,” Kissimmee Gateway Airport’s Director of Aviation Terry Lloyd said. He likened closing the Kissimmee airport tower to removing the traffic signal at U.S. 192 and John Young Boulevard, as pilots would be in uncontrolled airspace just south of Orlando International Airport and having to work amongst themselves to try and prevent any mid-air mishaps.
In August, the airport received a $2 million grant from the Department of Transportation to improve one of its runways, which hadn’t been improved since 1942.
The first two stages of Kissimmee’s Lakefront Park opened in April, with improved fishing docks, 275,000 square feet of concrete and bricked walkways, a lawn area big enough for large community events and another small and intimate enough to hold weddings. Stormwater treatment boxes were installed to clean the runoff that flows into Lake Tohopekaliga.
“Even though this was developed during a downturn, the City Commission and its managers never wavered on the vision to complete this,” Kissimmee Parks, Recreation and Public Facilities Director Dan Loubier said.
The park changed downtown Kissimmee, and another board proposed to make more changes. The Kissimmee Community Redevelopment Agency advised turning Broadway from a four-lane thoroughfare to a two-lane brick street with front-out angled parking. The speed limit would be reduced from 35 to 20 mph and a roundabout would be added at Broadway and Stewart Street to eliminate a traffic light there.
With business owners in that stretch downtown divided on how the project would affect their pedestrian business and plans still at the concept level, the stage has been set for the plan to remain a hot-button issue among downtown district retailers in 2014.
The Poinciana Parkway, a toll road linking the community to U.S. Highway 17-92 and providing an alternate way out to Pleasant Hill Road, went from a concept to a construction project in 2013. The Osceola County Expressway Authority secured a route, a funding source, a construction company – Jr. Davis Construction, which had to wait out a lawsuit filed by a competing bidder before proceeding – and held a groundbreaking ceremony in December. The road is the first step in a 40-year authority plan to develop a network of toll roads to open more of the county to economic development.
Poinciana also had a big year in 2013 for other reasons. The anticipated Poinciana Medical Center opened in July, and in September announced work on a 3,500 square-foot expansion to begin in 2014. The community also saw a community park open and heard Valencia College’s mission to add a Poinciana campus in the coming years.
One kind of development county commissioners chose not to engage in was building a new spring training complex in order to lure the Washington Nationals, who expressed interest in leaving their current spring home in Viera. A $98 million project was proposed, but the tourism industry, which would foot most of the bill with its room tax dollars, said the price over 30 years would double due to interest, maintenance costs and operating losses, and would limit its ability to attract other projects or market itself globally.
Commissioners eventually saw the ballpark as a backloaded deal, and while asking the Nationals to remain a potential partner and “get your checkbook out and join us,” voted down the plan and chose not to leverage itself into a long-term mortgage to fund a project into which the baseball team would be contributing little.
In October, the culmination of Osceola County’s new way with dealing with homelessness and families living in hotels not suited for that use came alive. With the help of Transition House and a federal grant, the former Four Winds Motel on U.S. 192 became Victory Village, a 20-unit rent-controlled apartment complex that took some of the area’s low-cost hotel rooms out of the inventory.
If all that wasn’t enough, county leaders infused hope for the future with a plan to bring the National Finals Rodeo – the “Super Bowl” of the professional rodeo circuit – to Osceola County for at least 10 years. If the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association approves a plan to move the event from Las Vegas, Osceola County would host the annual event, with its anticipated annual economic impact of over $60 million, at a 24,000-seat arena that would be part of a larger American Music Resorts development built adjacent to the Gaylord Palms Resort. A Memorandum of Understanding drawn up – and voted on in a historic Sunday meeting of county commissioners – also said Osceola Heritage Park would be a part of the annual festivities.
Clerk of Court – a calamity?
Newly-elected Clerk of Court Armando Ramirez and his office, tasked only with running the Osceola County Courthouse operations, stayed in the headlines. The news started shortly after Ramirez’s inauguration in front of hundreds in the Old Courthouse on Jan. 8.
By the end of the month there was outcry over a new detailed dress code he ordered that outlawed heavy beaded blouses for women, loud shoes for men and eliminated casual Fridays. His office called the measure “a better guideline of what to wear and not wear,” a release said.
In February Ramirez came under fire for issuing his wife Milly, who is not a county employee, security clearance to the courthouse’s sixth floor and the Clerk’s office after county officials originally rejected it.
By mid-February, he had fired Chief Deputy Arthur “Beau” Osborne and then let go Human Resources Director Marta Moczo-Santiago in April, saying he “didn’t trust” Osborne and Moczo-Santiago was “not adjusting to her job.”
Ramirez hosted a press conference on Apr. 11 to explain some of his personnel moves by telling attending media, “The employees love me … all of them.” That likely wasn’t the case, as by the start of the fall Public Information Officer Marvin Cortner, Finance Director Tiffany Morton and Technology Director Michael Johnson all had resigned.
The clerk’s motives were questioned again when he named Jennifer Soto, his son’s girlfriend, as an administrative assistant, then later promoted her to chief deputy clerk despite a perceived lack of background for the position. Ramirez said he violated no state laws in doing so, that other staff recommended the move and, “most importantly, I trust her.”
During the year, the Federal Department of Law Enforcement interviewed people involved in Ramirez’s campaign – but not Ramirez – who by order could not talk about the questioning, but it’s believed the investigation centered on whether the clerk promised jobs to those who worked on or donated to his election campaign.
A summer on edge
Around the July 4 holiday, Osceola law enforcement was on the lookout for someone firing a gun into homes, as over a dozen incidents from Kissimmee to St. Cloud were reported over a two-week stretch. The manhunt escalated after 17-year-old David Guerrero was found shot and killed at a Kissimmee bus stop early on June 28 and Eric Roopnarine was killed as part of a Poinciana home invasion on July 3.
An exhaustive investigation led to the the arrest of two people, David Damus and 15-year-old Konrad Schafer, deemed to be directly involved in the killings and two others, 17-year-old Victoria Rios and getaway driver Juan Muriel, who assisted in the Poinciana homicide. Their cases will be heard beginning in February.
Other high-profile cases came to closure in 2013 when defendants were sentenced. David Murrillo, convicted of killing Celebration resident Matteo Giovanditto in the town’s first recorded murder case during the 2010 Thanksgiving holiday.
David Penney, convicted of firing assault rifles into a St. Cloud home and at police officers on Nov. 21, 2011 in what St. Cloud Police Chief Pete Gauntlett called “one of the worst (scenes) I’ve ever witnessed,” received 20 years in prison for the crime.
Joshua Harris, convicted of shooting former Osceola High football player Rashan Hassan Ortiz at an April 2011 Kissimmee block party, received 40 years for the crime. And Cody White and David Smith received 60 years in prison for their roles in the shooting death of Anita Louise Smith in her Lake Lizzie backyard.
Among those who passed away in the community in 2013:
Leon “Buster” Makinson, longtime owner of Makinson’s Hardware in downtown Kissimmee, 72;
Murray Overstreet, former chief County Attorney, 83;
Norm Allen, stadium voice of Osceola County Stadium and the Great Florida Shootout high school basketball tournament, 77;
Lt. William Manning, Kissimmee firefighter killed on a non-duty traffic accident, 39;
St. Cloud Police Sgt. Boyd Graham of stage 4 liver cancer, 47.