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

Andrae Bailey, founder/president, Change Everything

Last week: NEW LODGING LEADER: Regional leaders hit a home run for our tourism industry by selecting Robert Agrusa as the new president and CEO of the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association. Agrusa, who will take the reins from the long-tenured and heralded Rich Maladecki, is the perfect choice for a community looking to rebuild our local hospitality industry after the devastating impact of COVID-19. The choice to put this agency in the hands of a young, locally developed and deeply connected talent like Agrusa is a tremendously wise choice; ensuring that this skilled next-generation executive keeps his roots tied to Greater Orlando.

Dick Batchelor, president, Dick Batchelor Management Group

Last week: PRESERVE THE REPUBLIC: When walking out of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked, “Do we have a monarchy or a Republic?” to which Franklin responded, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” President Trump wanted a self-serving monarchy. And he has done everything to protect his throne, including inciting a violent sedition and storming of the people’s house, the U.S. Capitol. To preserve our republic, the 25th Amendment must be invoked to remove the king from his throne. Otherwise, he needs to be impeached once again. America wants to preserve the Republic by denying a monarchy. We are a country of laws, not of men.

Looking ahead: REMEMBER SCOTT AND GAETZ: Now that the “Dirty Dozen” have failed to snatch the will of the voters away from them, the voters need to be reminded of those like Sen. Rick Scott and Rep. Matt Gaetz, among others, who were traitors to the constitutional will of the voters. It’s like Gaetz continues to audition to be the clown at the rodeo. He is willing to be run ahead of the bull to distract him or even cower in the barrel. Fortunately, this sideshow is drawing to a close and leaving town. Scott and Gaetz should show the same gesture or be voted out of office.

Lee Constantine, commissioner, Seminole County

Last week: FREE THE OCKLAWAHA: In 1935, the Army Corps of Engineers formulated a plan to build Florida’s own “Panama Canal,” known as the Cross Florida Barge Canal. However, scientist Marjorie Harris Carr and other environmentalists obtained an injunction to halt the project, citing the damage it would cause the Floridan Aquifer and the Ocklawaha River. In 1990, Sen. Bob Graham formally deauthorized the canal. On Jan. 15, marking the 50th anniversary of the court injunction, the Florida Defenders of the Environment will present Graham with their Environmental Advocacy award. A more fitting tribute would be for the Legislature to dismantle Rodman Dam and let the Ocklawaha run free.

Mary Lee Downey, CEO and founder of the Community Hope Center

Last week: LEGISLATURE FOCUS ON HOUSING: I had the opportunity to address our elected officials before the upcoming legislative session in Tallahassee. These representatives will have difficult decisions to make as they work to help Florida recover from both the virus and the economic fallout. I urged them to keep the Sadowski Housing Trust fully funded and support creative efforts to provide affordable housing for the residents of Central Florida and to remove barriers that restrict people from safe and dignified housing. Housing is health care, and we must do all we can to avoid a homeless epidemic in the midst of a pandemic.

Looking ahead: HOPE PARTNERSHIP: As 2020 drew to a close, our staff and board members successfully completed a rebranding. Community Hope Center is now Hope Partnership, and I’m excited for this new chapter. We’ll continue to provide support to families struggling along the tourism corridor of Highway 192, and we plan to do much more to fight against poverty and homelessness in Central Florida. By forging partnerships with those we serve, local businesses, fellow service providers, faith groups, and government agencies, we will work to advance our guiding mission of empowering neighbors, strengthening communities, and building hope.

Mark Freid, Immediate past president, Holocaust Center

Last week: A DIFFERENT D.C.: I can picture the details of my childhood visits to Washington, D.C., clearly – monuments, cherry blossoms, the Capitol dome and the country that welcomed my great-grandparents after they fled Eastern European oppression with the dream of a better life for themselves and their progeny. Their dream came true. My life isn’t just “better.” It’s extraordinary. Wednesday, I pictured a different Washington – the Capitol desecrated, men wearing “Camp Auschwitz” hoodies gleefully storming the halls, the flag of secession being carried through the rotunda. Now I sit, ashamed, anxious, afraid, wondering what my great-grandparents would think.

Ben Friedman, attorney and community advocate

Last week: BLACK-JEWISH COALITION: For decades, the Black-Jewish coalition has served as an inspiration for many young Jews interested in social justice, and the stories of Jewish freedom riders and Rabbis arrested alongside Martin Luther King Jr. have been taught to generations of children. The last few years have been a trying time for that coalition, with friction over Israel and the emergence of a new, small right-wing faction among Jews in America. But on Jan. 5, Georgia showed us once again the power of that historic coalition, and soon Georgia’s two new senators, Black and Jewish, will continue that legacy when they march, together, into the Senate.

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

Last week: REPAIRING OUR REPUBLIC: We watched in horror as our Capitol was attacked for the first time since the British burned it in 1814. Our democratic process was assaulted. Admittedly, I was overcome with tearful sorrow. This is America. It is truly a great republic. But as Benjamin Franklin mused, can we keep it? We can indeed keep it if our nation’s leaders fulfill their obligation to unite and do the people’s work with honor and integrity. Locally, we can serve as an example by demonstrating leadership, unity and care for our communities.

Jane Healy, former editorial page editor and managing editor, Orlando Sentinel

Last week: MALL REVITALIZATION: Not surprisingly, some already struggling shopping malls have been hit even harder by the pandemic. So it’s great to see Sanford officials seeking to turn the Seminole Town Center into a walkable community with apartments, stores, offices and entertainment. Once seen as a salvation for shoppers in northern Seminole and even Lake and Volusia counties 25 years ago, the mall gradually lost its anchors -- a death knell for any mall. Winter Park Village and the Oviedo Mall are also looking at makeovers. What’s important is that the spaces aren’t turned into storage facilities, industrial parks or even strip malls, which deaden an area rather than enliven it.

Eric Jackson, president/CEO, Total Roof Services Corp.; board member, CareerSource Central Florida

Looking ahead: CAPITOL DESECRATED: I have been blessed to have had the honor of visiting both the House and Senate chambers in the Capitol. I remember being awestruck and prideful about being American and that true democracy lived right there in that spot. Well, that spot was desecrated Wednesday by our president, a mob of misguided Americans who stormed Congress and later by a handful of politicians including our Sen. Rick Scott. If this was such a righteous protest, why don’t those involved in lawlessness turn themselves in to be judged and possibly martyred instead of scurrying home to plot against America more?

Viviana Janer, vice chairwoman, Osceola County Commission

Looking ahead: VACCINE DISTRIBUTION PROBLEMS: The state’s lackadaisical policies and absence of centralized planning during the COVID-19 pandemic have come home to roost with distribution of the vaccine. Frustrated seniors trying to schedule shots face swamped phone lines, crashing websites and long lines. Only a trickle of this lifesaving protection is making it into the arms of Osceola residents. The initial shipment of 3,000 doses doesn’t seem to be a fair share when Gov. Ron DeSantis is using precious supplies to launch pilot programs in “red” counties such as Seminole, Hernando, Citrus and Marion. Politics should not be played with the health of our residents.

Belinda Ortiz Kirkegard, Kissimmee economic development director

Last week: THANKS, GOVERNOR: I personally want to thank Gov. DeSantis for all the remarkable ways he's kept our state moving forward during this pandemic. This week's announcement to offer COVID vaccines in convenient locations for our vulnerable population is another home run in my book. Seniors often have a tough time getting around and being able to get their vaccines at locations they can easily access is brilliant. In case this hasn't been said enough -- Thank you Gov. DeSantis!

Looking ahead: The City of Kissimmee & St. Cloud are launching a pilot program, where each City is sponsoring 10 companies with one-on-one "GrowthWheel(TM) business coaching, for the next 6 months. Program results, will then be captured and used to apply for a US EDA grant so the program can be offered countywide. We interviewed some very excited companies who can start the program as early as next week and I'm equally excited to see how they evolve!

Ken LaRoe, Founder, Climate First Bank I/O

Last week: CORPORATE INFRASTRUCTURE: I was in Nashville the day the suicide bomber damaged an AT&T facility. The blast took out AT&T cell service across multiple states for two days. Why on Earth does the federal government grant monopolies to these giant Fortune 500 companies but does not necessitate that they have crucial backup infrastructure in place? As the CEO of a small community bank, I’m required to have multiple layers of redundancy. All this on the heels of the FCC’s 5G airwaves auction, with bids currently surging past a record-shattering $76 billion.

Looking ahead: GEORGIA STEPS UP: Georgia's primary results prove that voters are finally waking up and won’t put up with Republican schemes. In objecting to Electoral College votes, Republicans like those representing Florida in the U.S. House and Senate have shown that they are more than willing to fuel the demise of the democratic process if it means proving their loyalty to Donald Trump.

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

Last week: TRUMP INCITED MOB: On Jan. 23, 2016, President Trump boasted that he “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and wouldn’t lose any voters. He was right. Trump exceeded his own violent benchmark after inciting the Jan. 6 violent white privilege insurrection against the U.S. Capitol. Ask Sen. Rick Scott, who shamefully voted in favor of the baseless objections to Pennsylvania’s electors and thereby supported the insurrection. Trump encouraged a violent white extremist mob to engage in domestic terrorism along with a bag of other violent, destructive, mutinous and treasonous crimes. People died and police officers were brutalized. Will justice be served?

A.J. Marsden, assistant professor, Beacon College

Last week: FLORIDA FAILING ITS SENIORS: Florida is failing its senior citizens. Seniors 65 or older account for more than a third of the population in some counties. One might think our elected officials would have given more consideration to vaccination rollouts. The Florida Department of Health drafted a plan for vaccinations back in October; however, Gov. Ron DeSantis seemingly took them by surprise when he issued an executive order adding all senior citizens to the list on a first-come, first-served basis. Seniors now wait in tightly packed long lines and sleep in their cars so they can be vaccinated. It bears repeating: Florida is failing its senior citizens.

Anna McPherson, past president, Junior League of Greater Orlando

Looking ahead: CIVICS 101: I’ve learned from my experience in the Junior League how to run meetings through parliamentary procedure. Parliamentary procedure provides a neutral framework to foster discussion. It is inherently non-partisan and the proper way to conduct business. Following the tragedy at the Capitol this past week, I think civics education around parliamentary procedure should take place throughout the country. It's time to stop talking over each other and start engaging within our established framework. The Florida voter’s oath requires affirmation to protect and defend the constitutions of the U.S. and Florida. Parliamentary procedure is the mechanism we have to fulfill this obligation.

Khalid Muneer, broker/owner Jupiter Properties Central Florida

Last week: WORLD OUTRAGE: As I read international headlines, such as "Fire Devil,” “A president burns down his country” or “Attempted coup in Washington,” I can only think how our friends are in despair and enemies are rejoicing. The world image of us as the beacon of democracy was in tatters in those few hours of chaos in the Capitol building. We can no longer lecture the world about their political systems when ours was on the verge of collapse. Those leaders responsible for creating this chaos with their inflammatory speeches denying the validity of the election results must be held accountable.

Looking ahead: WAITING FOR VACCINE: As COVID-19 enters its second calendar year, all eyes are on how quickly the Orange County residents can be vaccinated, as we also need protection against the new strand of the virus spreading in Europe. The psychological effect of having the vaccine should give us confidence to get back to some normal economic life.

Muhammad Musri, president, Islamic Society of Central Florida

Looking ahead: PERFECT STORM: While COVID-19 is spreading fast across the U.S. claiming over 370,000 American lives, and hospitals are overcome by patients, and as the vaccine rollout is stumbling due to bad plans, our democracy came under attack last Wednesday in Washington, D.C., by Donald Trump diehards. They believed in conspiracies: the presidential election was stolen; the COVID-19 pandemic is a hoax; and the vaccine is a biological weapon to kill millions of people. It is disturbing that Sen. Rick Scott took part in trying to prevent the election certification of President-elect Biden instead of focusing on helping Floridians get vaccinated.

Pamela Nabors, president/CEO, CareerSource Central Florida

Last week: BUFFALO FOOTBALL JOY: There is one wonderful thing that came out of 2020 -- my beloved Buffalo Bills won the AFC East for the first time in 25 years. As a native Western New Yorker, I’ve been a fan since childhood; they say you can take the girl out of Buffalo but... you know the rest! I am not sure which victory was sweeter -- the incredible win over the Patriots on their home turf, or the amazing season-ending win over the Dolphins. Bill-ieve!

Looking ahead: FORWARD WITH RESOLVE: Our country witnessed a sad and scary day with the breach on the Capitol in Washington, D.C. I feel numb and tired from the images of confrontation and violence. I remember fondly the times visiting and honoring the very places that now have been vandalized. I feel drained and worried, as I did the morning after 9-11. But, just like on Sept. 12, 2001, work and life go on. There’s still a pandemic and its economic impact to mitigate, and differences to heal with respectful communication. I believe we can move forward with greater unity and remain optimistic for the new year.

Cole NeSmith, executive director, Creative City Project

Last week: MATURE LEADERS: These days remind us of the necessity of emotional maturity and health in those we entrust with power. The insurrection at the nation’s Capitol displayed the danger of empowering emotionally immature people with positions of leadership. Emotionally healthy leaders de-escalate volatile situations, use their words to guide people toward peace and -- ultimately -- don’t make it about themselves. We’re fortunate to have mature leaders in Central Florida. Let’s make sure we keep that as a value. When we lack emotional maturity, we destroy the things and people around us. When we are growing in our emotional maturity, we build things up as we grow.

Looking ahead: NEW YEAR, MORE ARTS: 2021 is already seeing a re-emergence of arts and culture. As we lapsed into the new year, Dazzling Nights (an immersive holiday light event at Leu Gardens) closed its sold-out, 36-day run. That event will be followed by “Down the Rabbit Hole.” Guests follow Alice on an adventure through Mead Botanical Garden as they meet the cast of characters in Wonderland. Opera Orlando presents “Hansel & Gretel” Jan. 29-31, and Orlando Ballet presents “Moulin Rouge: The Ballet” Feb. 11-14 -- both at Dr Phillips Center, which is continuing its Frontyard Festival with movies and live performances all month long.

Paul Partyka, president, Central Florida Commercial Association of Realtors

Looking ahead: TRUMP’S REALITY: The Capitol attack is like a knife to the heart of every citizen of this country. I hope the Trump followers finally realize that he does not care about you, but only himself. Every Republican state elections director said voting was not fraudulent and votes were certified. Trump threatened the Georgia director to illegally change the count. He incited his supporters to not believe facts. This man is not dealing with reality. His leadership has turned into a major embarrassment for us. Let’s hope the Republican leadership starts a new path and works with the Democrats to make our country better.

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

Last week: VACCINE SUCCESS: Wow! In less than 15 minutes from arriving, minimal paperwork was completed, and the Moderna vaccine was in my arm. After another 15 minutes in the observation area, I was on my way. My great experience was with Orlando Health at Health Central in Ocoee. The process was nicely organized to quickly and safely accommodate a lot of us. The only challenge was figuring out how to register. The staff sets appointments according to doses received. I’m hearing positive experiences with getting vaccinated at the Convention Center, Oviedo Mall, VA, and several work sites.

Jim Philips, retired longtime radio talk-show host

Last week: GET BACK IN LINE: Just what was the rationale for the mayors of Orlando and Orange County to get the COVID-19 vaccine ahead of just about everyone else? Does anyone believe that the wheels of city and county government would grind to a halt otherwise? Let's not even ponder Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (age 49), who jumped at the chance to get a shot. While not engaging in arguments with reporters over vaccine distribution, at least Gov. Ron DeSantis (age 42) had the good graces to announce he will wait until health-care workers, first responders, and the elderly are afforded protection first.

Looking ahead: SMILE, YOU’RE ON CAMERA: I wonder how many of the domestic terrorists who stormed the U.S. Capitol are nervously awaiting the next knock on the door? U.S. attorneys in the Department of Justice are promising to track down the self-proclaimed insurrectionists and deal with them as the law allows. Knock, knock...could be the FBI. Ring, ring of the doorbell... could be the U.S. Marshal’s office. That selfie you posted on the internet to brag about your exploits is about to come back and bite you. By the way, no photographs are allowed at your court arraignment.

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

Last week: DEMOCRACY UNDER ATTACK: We witnessed an attempted coup when rioters incited by the president and his allies in Congress violently stormed the U.S. Capitol and stopped the presidential-election certification based on unfounded election fraud conspiracies. Debate resumed after the pro-Trump mob breached and vandalized the Capitol and after one fatal shooting. Still, 139 Representatives (12 from Florida) and eight senators (including Florida Sen. Rick Scott) voted to oppose the certification process. Now the focus should not center on law-enforcement failure. This attack on our democracy was perpetrated by hundreds of domestic terrorists and complicit elected officials. We must hold them accountable.

Looking ahead: VACCINE NIGHTMARE: What’s wrong with this picture? Vulnerable seniors waiting overnight in freezing temperatures; COVID-19 vaccines sitting in freezers while people are dying; only 25% of available vaccines distributed; vaccination phone lines unanswered and websites crashing; the governor threatening to take away vaccine from overwhelmed hospitals for vaccinating too few. Florida needs one coordinated logistical vaccination protocol for appointments, drive-through sites, and facilities other than hospitals — like the excellent Orange County Convention Center model. Retired licensed health-care providers and nurses like me should get vaccinated and step up to volunteer. Get the best minds on this logistical nightmare now.

Larry Pino, attorney and entrepreneur

Last week: DEMOCRACY WON AGAIN: For the second time since November’s historical vote count, American democracy has won again. What occurred Wednesday, when our Capitol was overrun by a violent and seditious mob stoked to riot by a sitting president, was all too predictable when men and women of conscience continued to hold their tongues for far too long. What followed that evening, however, was reassuring. The chorus of resolute voices streaming from our stunned and shaken elected officials thundered a wake-up call denouncing demagoguery and pledging to rescue the heart and soul of our nation.

Looking ahead: AMAZON’S TREASURES: A recent announcement by Amazon reminded me of the old phrase: “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” The company is buying 11 Boeing 767-300 E.R. twin engine jets, which have been retired by Delta and WestJet. For the airlines and for Boeing, life in a post-COVID-19 world has not been wonderful. However, as far as Amazon is concerned, the future is all about home product delivery, which has catapulted Amazon and its fleet of 83 cargo aircraft into a $1.6 trillion company with 843,000 employees. In every sense of the word, one company’s trash is another’s treasure.

Stephanie Porta, executive director, Organize Florida

Last week: UNITING FOR EQUITY: This year marks a moment of new beginnings and a brighter future. We soon will be rid of the dictator in chief and Floridians have a new organization created by the people, for the people. Two grassroots powerhouses — Organize Florida and New Florida Majority — are now Florida Rising, a new and powerful model fighting for equity and change throughout our state. Everyone excluded by the current status quo will have a vehicle to work together to win the policies and the representation that we deserve. The recent election revealed how much can be accomplished by joining forces. Because we are the new majority, together we rise.

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

Last week: HORRRIFYING MEMORY: As the Trump-supporting mob stormed the Capitol, my thoughts went back 30 years to the old Orlando City Hall building’s blow-up during the “Lethal Weapon 3” movie filming. The controlled demolition, paid for by the filmmaker, offset the tear-down cost after the new city hall opened. At a nearby watching party, the fireball appeared to turn our way. Momentarily, it didn’t seem the party would end well. The mob entering the Capitol triggered that memory. I immediately went to the idea of a timed-for-later bomb. What’s clear is that the MAGA mob supports President Trump in blowing America up metaphorically.

Looking ahead: ZORA’S BIRTHDAY: Celebrating the 130th birthday of Zora Neale Hurston, the month-long hybrid special event (both virtual and in-person programming) continues in our community. The 32nd annual festival of the arts and humanities reminds us annually of the most famous daughter of Eatonville. Sunday, Jan. 17, includes a tour of the yards and gardens of historic Eatonville. Open to the public, reservations are required, and all COVID-19 safety protocols will be followed at the events. The Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts’ new location at 344 East Kennedy Blvd. is worth the visit.

Beverly Seay, chair, UCF Board of Trustees

Looking ahead: THANK THE SCIENTISTS: I am thankful for the many scientists and health-care workers who are working tirelessly to produce and deliver vaccines to protect us from COVID-19. This group includes Darin Edwards, who has applied his three UCF degrees to help to lead the research and development of Moderna’s vaccine. I appreciate the ingenuity and persistence of Darin and his colleagues, as well as the dedication and compassion shown by health-care workers who are administering shots. Together, you are helping to stop the spread of the virus, inspiring all of us and making our world a better place.

Michael Slaymaker, professional fundraising executive

Last week: FACIAL RECOGNITION: From 2017 to 2019, the City of Orlando and Orlando Police Department partnered with Amazon Web Services on facial recognition technology. How did that go? I wonder if it can be used on photos and video from the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6? Hope so. Protesting is fine. Being a thug, harassing or assaulting police officers is not protesting. It is criminal. We need to identify these criminals and put them behind bars (after Jan. 20 so they can't be pardoned). Who from Central Florida was there?

John Thedford, entrepreneur, founder of SMART Financial

Last week: CRIME RATE DOWN: The Florida Department of Law Enforcement reports crime dropped about 12% the first half of 2020 compared to the same time last year. It is interesting to see how the coronavirus has impacted the types of crimes. It appears that domestic violence has increased, this makes sense as people are spending more time at home with each other and with people at home; property crimes have decreased as well as rape and robberies. In Central Florida we have seen a decrease in total crime rates. Good news to focus on with everything else that’s going on.

Jen Vargas, producer/host, FilmSlam

Last week: FILM PREMIERE: Great news from Central Florida film director and FilmSlam alumnus Todd Thompson. His production company, Stars North LLC, has produced its first full-length feature documentary called, "Woman in Motion: Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek and the Remaking of NASA." On Feb. 2, "Woman in Motion" will screen nationwide to kick off Fathom Events’ Celebrates Black History Month series. Star Trek fans as well as those unfamiliar with actress Nichelle Nichols' involvement in bringing more diversity to NASA's recruiting programs will be in for an all-star treat. For participating locations, please visit www.fathomevents.com.

Michael Zais, political blogger for thedrunkenrepublican.com

Last week: VACCINE LOGISTICS: It doesn’t take a genius to have predicted that the initial distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines would be fraught with some level of chaos and disorganization. And the counties in Florida that started all this on a “first come, first served” basis -- well, I don’t know what the heck they were thinking. The federal government has access to the foremost logistics experts for distribution to the states -- the U.S. military. Why don’t we enlist the help of some of the thousands of laid-off employees from a place that knows a thing or two about logistics and crowd control -- Disney?

Looking ahead: BEACH DRIVING: What a difference a few decades make. Back when I was in high school and college in Central Florida, all of us kids thought driving on the beach in Volusia County was the best thing since sliced bread. The sheer convenience of it, cruising up and down the beach checking out the “sights.” But fast forward about 35 years, and my perspective has changed quite a bit. I want a relaxing, tranquil day at the beach, not engines revving and music blaring. And the safety aspect speaks for itself. Call me an old curmudgeon. I’ll own that. I’ve been called far worse.

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