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Our panel of 100 influential leaders discusses the most important issues affecting you.

Martha Are, CEO, Central Florida Commission on Homelessness

Looking ahead: HOMELESS FUNDING: On Monday, the City of Orlando will vote on the budget, including funding for three of our largest homeless service providers, Coalition for the Homeless, Christian Service Center and Salvation Army. As Orlando confronts a tight affordable housing market and the end of the eviction moratorium, our providers offer critical services to those experiencing homelessness. In the last year, these agencies helped more than 1,500 individuals move into housing; more than 600 find or retain employment; more than 2,600 access shelter; and made nearly 2,000 mental-health referrals. We thank the Mayor and City Council for their ongoing partnership and hope they continue funding this important work.

Gary Cain, president, Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida

Last week: MIXED EMOTIONS AFTER SHOOTING: Tuesday afternoon, directly across the street from our newest Boys & Girls Club near the 408 and Tampa Avenue, a 22-year-old and two teens approached an unmarked police car and exchanged gunfire, resulting in an injury to one of the teens and the ultimate arrest of all three. My colleagues and I have been awash in conflicting emotion: relief that the police officers escaped injury, despair that there are youth in our community who have such a meaningless view of human life that they engage in pointless violence, and renewed confidence that our new Club — which will offer hope and nurturing to generations of underserved youth — is exactly where it needs to be.

Mary Lee Downey, CEO, Hope Partnership

Last week: TRAUMA-INFORMED CARE: I spent several days with leaders of my team in a workshop focused on trauma-informed care (TIC). We are embarking on a goal to connect every facet of our work in TIC. Our work with those experiencing poverty and homelessness has taught us that people are not in these circumstances because something is wrong with them -- it’s because something has happened to them that was greater than their support systems could handle. This is one more reason why we believe that everyone in our community deserves a safe place to call home.

John L. Evans Jr., Organizational behavior scholar; DeSantis appointee

Last week: HONORING A HERO: Among the toughest things about grief is how it lingers. Sept. 11 memorials were great, but now they're over. So I want to take a moment and acknowledge a hero. Pete Berardi, a career commanding SEAL and now professor at USF, was a first responder. His stories are spellbinding, both joy-filled upon rescue, and heart-wrenching when he and the rescue dogs came up shorter and shorter, as the clock ticked, that fateful American day. When Dr. Berardi walks in the room, you find yourself straightening up. He's a pillar of leadership with competence, courage and humility. Here's to you, Commander Berardi: you are America's finest.

Jeff Hayward, president and CEO, Heart of Florida United Way

Last week: HISPANIC HERITAGE MONTH: Hispanic Heritage Month is under way. Starting as one week in 1968, the celebration transitioned to one month in 1988 and starts in mid-September to coincide with national independence days in five Latin American countries. It’s amazing to me how our country was built on such diverse cultures – especially Hispanic, which is deeply woven into the fabric of Central Florida. Because of our proximity to Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico and South America, many cultures reside here, making up more than 30 percent of our population. So let’s celebrate this month, by taking time to learn more about Hispanic cultures.

Viviana Janer, vice chairwoman, Osceola County Commission

Last week: NEOCITY RISING: Working with a South Korean tech billionaire will set the stage for the creation of a $1.2 billion mixed-use City Center at NeoCity, a technology district Osceola County started from scratch several years ago. Development of the 25 acres fits a strategy that includes a manufacturing facility for semiconductors, an office building and a magnet school providing a pathway to high-paying jobs. The county earlier this year partnered with Skywater Technology to operate the fabrication facility. Agreements with partners in Belgium, Germany and Japan already exist. The city center is integral to NeoCity’s rise to showcase smart technologies.

Belinda Ortiz Kirkegard, Kissimmee economic development director

Last week: BOOMERANG: A few years back Kissimmee was very disappointed to lose an aviation project to Texas. However, we left such a favorable impression that they have returned. Cirrus plane manufacturer announced their expansion into our market, with added investments at Orlando Executive Airport and Kissimmee Gateway Airport. The best part of this boomerang is that the return will yield a much greater investment than was originally presented a few years back. This is a major win for our Central Florida aviation industry.

Looking ahead: HOMELESS HELP: On Tuesday, the Kissimmee City Commission will be evaluating proposals for agencies ready to aggressively provide help to precariously housed individuals and families. The city’s request for proposal provided one of the most progressive game plans to help people in need and truly move the needle.

Ken LaRoe, Founder, Climate First Bank

Last week: FLORIDA IS A JOKE: It’s embarrassing how our ongoing public health crisis has gotten so bad that other states are using Florida as a cautionary tale. During the California gubernatorial recall election, Democrats used “Don’t DeSantis my California” as a rallying cry, linking Republicans on the ballot to Gov. DeSantis’ hands-off stance to the pandemic. His irresponsible opposition to masks and vaccine mandates has made us a standing joke among other states.

Looking ahead: HOT NIGHTS: Scientists have noticed a statewide pattern of hotter nights due to the climate crisis. Not only is this increasing cooling bills for Floridians, but the affects to the state’s agricultural industry will be felt more acutely. Livestock that live outside will find it harder to cool down, crops will experience more heat stress and pests will flourish. Scientists also predict serious impacts to human health and vulnerable populations. Florida needs to get serious – emissions are on track to hit a record high worldwide in 2021, according to the International Energy Agency, and the only way to stop things from getting worse is to address our carbon emissions.

Jeremy Levitt, distinguished professor of international law, Florida A&M University College of Law

Last week: HAITIANS’ TREATMENT: The Biden Administration is practicing anti-Black racism at our border. Its inhumane treatment of Haitian migrants trying to enter the United States is yet another stain on Biden's race card. Would white migrants be treated with such apathy and indignity? Video of Border Patrol agents in Del Rio, Texas, attempting to turn back Haitians illegally entering the U.S. was reminiscent of slave hunters in the 2012 film “Django Unchained” and 1977’s “Roots.” Would America allow thousands of white women and children to sleep in the dirt, grass and heat? Why hasn’t the Christian community, particularly white evangelicals, come to their aid in a big way? Shame on us all!

Alex Martins, chair, UCF Board of Trustees; CEO, Orlando Magic

Looking ahead: HISPANIC SERVING INSTITUTION: As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, UCF is focused on strengthening opportunities for our nearly 20,000 Latino students. We are one of three Hispanic Serving Institutions among Florida’s state universities and one of only 16 HSIs nationally among universities that have very high research activity. The HSI designation paves the way for more federal grants, including $1.8 million we received from the National Science Foundation to support the success of Latino and other underrepresented students pursuing STEM majors. We are proud to serve our Latino community as its impact grows throughout our campuses and our region.

Muhammad Musri, president, Islamic Society of Central Florida

Last week: NEW QUARANTINE PROTOCOLS: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, along with Florida’s new surgeon general Dr. Joseph Ladapo, announced new protocols allowing parents to decide whether their children should quarantine or stay in school if they are asymptomatic after being exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. In addition to the governor’s insistence on no mask mandates in schools, under the new guidelines, students who have been exposed can continue going to campus without restrictions, provided they are asymptomatic. Pushing schools to pre-pandemic operations now is a recipe for disaster as more students and teachers will be exposed. Children’s vaccinations are on the way – just wait.

Pamela Nabors, president/CEO, CareerSource Central Florida

Last week: CFCARTS LEGACY: It’s impossible to express in 100 words, the full impact that Central Florida Community Arts founder Joshua Vickery leaves on this community. The community is stronger because of his vision. Josh has brought the performing arts to underserved populations through community outreach and overseen thousands of performances. CFCArts has connected children and seniors to arts education through choir and orchestra events. As a member of the community choir, I’ve witnessed the synergy between CFCArts sponsors, talented performers, and community organizations. We wish Josh the best as he moves on to make an impact in Washington, D.C., where he’ll make more magic.

Looking ahead: DISNEY 50: Walt Disney World turns 50 next month and begins the “World’s Most Magical Celebration.” 50 years of magical memories; it’s a milestone for the theme park and a milestone for Central Florida. Our region, quite simply, wouldn’t be where it is today without Walt Disney’s vision. A star-studded ABC special on Oct. 1 kicks off the 18-month-long celebration highlighting the park’s story and history. As an annual passholder, I am excited to ride the new Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure ride at Epcot this weekend before it officially opens. Happy 50th birthday!

Cole NeSmith, executive director, Creative City Project

Last week: OUC LIGHTS RETURN: More of the IMMERSE Festival is popping up in downtown Orlando. The Creative City Project brought the OUC Lights back to City Hall Plaza. The light-art installation features 8,000 individual LED balls arranged in a 3-dimensional fashion that dance with light and color. The partnership with Orlando Utilities Commission is designed to bring something beautiful to the community while highlighting OUC’s energy-saving programs like the use of LED fixtures and their solar services. The sculpture is part of IMMERSE, coming to downtown Orlando Oct. 15-17.

Looking ahead: SCARY MOVIE NIGHT: Spooky season is upon us. Throughout October, Enzian Theater in Maitland will present 13 Films and Cocktails of Halloween. The films span Enzian’s special events like Cult Classics showing “Freddy vs. Jason,” Saturday Matinee Classics like, “The Blob” and Midnight Movies like “Donnie Darko.” If you’re looking for something for the family, check out the Kids’ Halloween Party featuring “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” And it all leads up to Eden Bar’s Halloween Party where you can grab one of their 13 spooky cocktails.

Brendan O'Connor, editor in chief, Bungalower.com

Last week: SCULPTURE GARDEN: The Orlando Museum of Art just shared its plans for a rooftop sculpture garden at its future downtown Orlando annex, that will be located in a new 33-story tower in South Eola. The garden will feature works by renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly alongside fancy rainwater collection devices and solar energy infrastructure. I can't wait to pretend I have money at a future art party there.

Looking ahead: SAFE FALL FESTIVALS: With hospitals like AdventHealth going back to "Green Status" with declining numbers of COVID-19-positive patients in their care, the fall festival season seems to be picking up steam with large-scale Halloween events like Halloween Horror Nights in full swing and blockbusters like Come Out With Pride and Immerse on the horizon. Let's hope we can keep those numbers down with good sense, more vaccinations, and some healthy respect for our fellow humans so we can have a fun fall.

Beverly Paulk, founding member, Central Florida Foundation and The Orlando Philharmonic

Looking ahead: WOMEN SHOULD DECIDE: I trust women to make the best possible decisions about their bodies and situations for continuing pregnancies. It’s difficult, life-changing decisions either way. Legislators should not decide. I remember laws forbidding unmarried women from having access to birth control and other misguided efforts. Also, birth-control methods have failure rates and unintended pregnancies. Please join this older woman on Oct. 2 at 11 a.m. at Orlando City Hall to be counted as part of the March for Abortion Access. Bring your sign and a chair. For now, it isn’t abortion versus no abortion. It’s safe legal abortion or more women being mutilated or dying needlessly, especially low-income women.

Jim Philips, retired longtime radio talk-show host

Last week: MISSING WHITE WOMAN SYNDROME: Just what is the formula that the media uses to determine which "missing woman" needs news coverage? The family of Gabby Petito must be enduring an incredible amount of pain now that her remains have been found in Wyoming. However, more Black women "go missing" every year than white women; they are often described as runaways. The number of Native American women who are victimized, brutalized and murdered is at a level far surpassing the white population. The news media fascination with Gabby Petito is described as "missing white woman syndrome.” Why is this so and why don't the media address it?

Gloria Pickar, president emerita, League of Women Voters of Orange County

Last week: INTERNATIONAL TOURISTS RETURN: After more than 550 days without international tourists, the federal government announced the ban on global travelers will be lifted in November. Before COVID-19, 75 million visitors contributed more than 50% of Orange County sales tax revenue and a significant proportion (about 15%) were international travelers who spent more than $6 billion annually. This essentially stopped with the pandemic and the international travel ban. Beginning in November, global visitors can return under federal guidelines, by providing proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of boarding a flight to the U.S. Welcome news for Orange County.

Looking ahead: KIDS GET FOOD AID: Succumbing to weeks of strong public and organizational pressure from 81 advocacy groups, Florida finally joined all the other states to apply for $820 million in American Rescue Plan funds for children of low-income families affected by COVID-19. Parents of 2.1 million kids will receive $375 per child in food stamps this summer. What took so long? Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida’s Department of Children and Families claimed kids don’t need the funds, but groups like the Florida PTA and Second Harvest Food Bank countered that these families are still struggling financially, and kids are hungrier in the summer. Just proves advocacy works.

Larry Pino, attorney and entrepreneur

Last week: THE BIG BANG: The successful all-civilian mission onboard the Crew Dragon is not just the next step in the evolution of the space industry; it is the Big Bang in space tourism. Benji Reed, SpaceX’s senior director for its human Space Flight Program, has already projected as many as half a dozen flights a year. And private equity is lining up to fund them, scouring the sector for companies mature enough to absorb the capital they are ready to commit. That combination – proprietary expertise and abundant capital – can only harbor good tidings for Central Florida’s economy for decades to come.

Looking ahead: DISNEY’S LAKE NONA: The deal between Walt Disney World and Tavistock Development to buy 60 acres next to Lake Nona’s Medical City is more than just a real-estate deal. Disney’s intention is to transfer some 2,000 Disney employees from California to Orlando at an average annual wage of $120,000. That is not insignificant. When news broke on Nov. 15, 1965, that Walt Disney was exploring Central Florida for a new theme park, it was a pivotal catalyst for our meteoric rise in tourism. While this deal may not be pivotal, it certainly augments the ongoing year-over-year improvement in Central Florida’s standard of living.

Stephanie Porta, co-executive director, Florida Rising

Last week: RELIEF FOR PUERTO RICO: Five years ago the American government stole Puerto Rico’s financial freedom by forming a colonial oversight board that stripped the U.S. territory of its sovereignty. Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Control Board is opposed by the majority of Republicans and Democrats, a rare congruence between the two parties. Our country abandoned the Puerto Rican people after Hurricane Maria left a $139 billion albatross around the island's neck. We can fix our mistakes. It’s time our representatives from Florida work to abolish the Board and deliver debt relief to our brothers and sisters by passing the United States Territorial Act.

Looking ahead: NEGOTIATE DRUG PRICES: Florida Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy is filling up her campaign coffers with cash for a competitive race in 2022. Sadly, her fundraising strategy is relying on Big Pharma. Thirty percent of Florida residents have stopped buying their prescriptions due to high costs. Murphy is publicly against Medicare and Medicaid negotiating the price of prescription drugs that would turn this awful trend around -- why? Murphy argues a shift in policy would be fiscally irresponsible. We are skeptical. Campaign finance records show the No. 1 industry contributing to her campaign is insurance companies who can negotiate drug prices. Tsk-tsk.

Joanie Schirm, GEC founding president; World Cup Orlando 1994 Committee chairman

Last week: ABORTION BILL: When the GOP-led Texas Legislature passed a draconian anti-abortion law ending a woman’s right to choose, Florida women knew a similar unconstitutional bill was heading our way. At the time, Gov. Ron DeSantis said this: “I’m pro-life. I welcome pro-life legislation. What they did in Texas was interesting. I’m going to look a little more significantly at it.” Now, in this “freedom of choice during pandemic” life and death period affecting us all, DeSantis gets tongue-tied about what’s been called the heartbeat bill. Trapped in the middle of two policy issues, DeSantis knows his choice will affect whether scores of women will re-elect him as governor, a future president, or simply dogcatcher.

Looking ahead: UBER PAY: After a short trip recently, an Uber driver brought us home from Orlando International Airport. The courteous driver who welcomed us home filled us in on the past week’s rainy weather and Orlando happenings, along with sharing interesting life stories. The fare was $25.94, an excellent deal, and we gave him a well-deserved tip. When I reviewed the bill, I learned the toll authority got $1.15, Uber’s booking fee was $6.34, and for picking us up at the OIA curb, the airport surcharge was $5.80. I was shocked at how little our driver and his car received as his “trip fare”: $12.65. Fair?

Michael Slaymaker, professional fundraising executive

Last week: BELLE ISLE ZIP CODE: There is prestige to having “the” ZIP code. Remember 90210? Keith Severns, the city manager of Belle Isle, has asked the U.S. Postal Service to create a special ZIP code for the town. Currently, Belle Isle shares ZIP codes with 32812 and 32809, which cover a lot of apartments north of the airport plus the Orange Blossom Trail and Sky Lake areas. Governments use ZIP codes for a variety of things, from the Census to Medicare rates. The issue was tabled at the last meeting.

Carol Wick, CEO, Sharity

Last week: EQUAL TREATMENT: We learned that Gabby Petito, the vlogger from Florida whose disappearance captured international attention, was killed in what police are calling a homicide. All this attention has raised the question, “What about all the missing Black, brown, and Indigenous women?” 710 Indigenous people, mostly girls, have been reported missing in the same area as Gabby. Here in Florida, the number of missing women, many with their partner or ex as the primary suspect, also remain missing. We must do better and ensure that every missing woman and girl receives the same due diligence when she goes missing.

Looking ahead: TREATING WOMEN: How do we treat women? Florida rates a “D” according to the Status of Women in the States. The best score we received is a “C” in reproductive health. To end that, Rep. Webster Barnaby filed HB 167, similar to the horrific Texas abortion law. Goodbye “C.” But what else will we lose? Imagine having to prove that you had a miscarriage in court. Imagine revenge suits where loved ones cannot recover costs even if they are falsely accused. There are no provisions for rape or incest. This isn’t about ending abortion, it’s about power and control and traumatizing women. We must ensure this stops now.

Michael Zais, political blogger for thedrunkenrepublican.com

Last week: LADAPO FEAR OVERBLOWN: The hair-on-fire reaction by some to Florida’s new Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo and his opposition to vaccine and mask mandates is absurd. A recent study out of Israel showed that the delta variant was 27 times more likely to break through Pfizer protection and cause symptoms than it was to penetrate natural immunity. Yet those pushing mandates refuse to even acknowledge natural immunity. Similarly, most studies show the cloth masks most of us wear provide negligible protection. The mandate-mongers are consumed with power and control -- not public health or science.

Looking ahead: HAITIAN MIGRANTS: Despite false claims by the Biden administration that the thousands of Haitian migrants in Del Rio, Texas, are being sent back to Haiti, it’s been widely reported by the AP and others that the lion’s share of these folks are being released into the interior of the country. The AP quoted one official saying this is happening on a “very, very large scale.” This, on top of equally laughable and repeated claims by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas that the border is “closed.” The lies and lawlessness need to stop.

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