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Silhouettes Profiles Robin Nigh

Robin Nigh

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 13, 2017 edition of La Gaceta

By: Tiffany Razzano

As manager of the City of Tampa’s art programs, Robin Nigh has made a name for herself as a leader in the contemporary public art field. She’s been nationally recognized in the field for various programs she’s implemented, including the city’s Photographer Laureate Program and Lights On Tampa. Most recently, she was elected to the Americans for the Arts Public Art Network, which is the only national organization for public art.
A Florida native, Nigh’s father worked for Gulf Oil, so the family moved around the state. One constant in her early years was her love of art. “I was always interested in how things looked and why they looked the way they did,” she said.
By the time she reached high school, her family settled in Lake Worth. She decided to study art history after graduating, and headed to the University of Florida in Gainesville. She was accepted into Penn State University’s art history master’s program after earning her bachelor’s degree.
While there, she won a scholarship to study abroad at Britain’s Oxford University. This was a life-changing experience for the art history student. “That’s where things started to hit me,” she said. “Before, I could never decide what to study because it was all so interesting. But I discovered how cool it was to work with living artists.”
She began thinking more about “how things in the public realm take meaning” and “the integrity … of what people make in their own spaces.”
Nigh added, “It was formative for me and deeply meaningful. There were all these aha moments.”
This changed her entire course. Since Penn State didn’t focus much on contemporary art, she transferred to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and enrolled in the master’s program in art theory and criticism at the school.
She married while studying in Chicago. But after she earned her degree, she and her husband relocated to Florida to raise a family.
They landed in Tallahassee, where Nigh completed postgraduate studies at Florida State University and served as project administrator of FSU’s Art in State Buildings Program from 1994 to 1998.
The program, which was mandated by a Florida statute in the 1970s, acquires artwork for display at new public facilities throughout the state. A percentage of funds is set aside to purchase the artwork, Nigh said. She was charged with facilitating bringing artwork to FSU’s campus.
She enjoyed working under FSU president Sandy D’Alemberte, who was a proponent of the program. “He really understood the value of the arts and brought me up to the president’s office so he could be more engaged and understand the role of the program,” she said.
This role at FSU “was a precursor” to her work with the City of Tampa, she said. In 1999, Nigh was hired by the city as administrator of the Public Art Program.
She learned about the job opening because she happened to be in the right place at the right time, she said. “Talk about meant to be.”
She was delivering something to the dean of her department at FSU when someone handed her the job announcement for Tampa’s Public Art Program. Intrigued, she applied. Her husband, a real estate developer, was also looking for a new job at the time. “We both received job offers [in Tampa] on the same day,” she said.
When Nigh arrived in Tampa, the Public Art Program had just moved into the old Tampa Museum of Art. “As closely as we work hand-in-hand with the Tampa Museum, this position doesn’t really belong there,” she said. “It really needs to be immersed in local government in order to coordinate these programs.”
As the museum made moves to establish itself as an independent museum and embarked on plans to build a new facility, the city established the Department of Arts and Cultural Affairs. So Nigh and the Public Art Program moved out of the museum.
The program involves local artists with various public projects throughout the city. The goal is to do more than merely enhance city-owned spaces, though, stated Nigh, who is now manager of art programs. Its purpose is really to celebrate Tampa’s character and culture. “In many ways, it’s a storytelling role,” she said. “Our role is to listen, to engage and to hopefully make people feel something about some of the [public] spaces they’re in.”
She considers herself “a facilitator or a translator,” bridging the gap between the city and the artists. “Artists have unique needs and requirements, how artists work and function is very different [from city government]. Our role is to facilitate and coordinate and translate all these kinds of things that aren’t necessarily, by their nature, constructed for the government process.”
Two projects she spearheaded – the Photographer Laureate Program and Lights On Tampa – were recognized by Americans for the Arts. In fact, the group named Lights On Tampa one of the 50 most influential art programs in the last 50 years.
Lights On Tampa is a public-private partnership between the city and the Public Art Alliance that focuses on innovative and interactive public art experiences. Since its launch in 2006, the light installation returned in 2009 for Super Bowl XLIII, 2011 at the new Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, 2012 for the Republican National Convention and 2015 for Gasparilla Arts Month. “These temporary installations were experimental and cutting edge,” Nigh said. “It was exciting to see some of the wow factor in our public spaces.”
The Photographer Laureate Program has also been recognized as one of the first in the field, she said. Inspired by the Burgert Bros. Photographic Collection, which recorded the growth of the Tampa Bay area from the late 1800s to the early 1960s, this program commissions photographers to preserve Tampa’s contemporary history from their perspective. “Nobody was documenting that kind of history, and that was the intent of it,” Nigh explained.
Both projects remain relevant and important to the city’s Public Art Program, she said. They’re being updated and tweaked to meet the city’s current needs and adapt to new technology.
But the department is always working on a number of projects with various artists, she said. Recently, as part of another public-private partnership, the city has released a coloring book called “Color Me West Tampa.” Its counterpart, “Color Me Tampa,” was released years ago under then-Mayor Pam Iorio’s watch. Nigh and her team worked closely with the Mayor’s Hispanic Advisory Council, the Tampa Bay History Center and the city’s archives department.
An ongoing project is the public art being created for the renovation of the 23-acre Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park. “We have some artists doing mosaics and I really think it’s very thoughtful and contextual, things that will work very well with the park and work well with West Tampa,” she said.
Nigh stresses that the projects her team works on “aren’t cookie-cutter kinds of things that you just stick on a plaza.” They work with artists in a variety of mediums and determine unique ways to provide public access to these pieces of art.
The city has even commissioned artists to create animations about a variety of topics, from environmental issues to the Hillsborough River. Though they’re not found in a public space, they can be viewed online and on city television.
The artwork created through the programs her department oversees helps Tampa carve out its own unique identity, especially as neighboring St. Petersburg makes a mark on the international art community with the colorful murals that adorn many privately and publicly owned buildings. “What St. Pete is doing is great, but we don’t need to copy them,” Nigh said. “It’s a very different type of downtown. If we did what they did, it wouldn’t be successful here. At the same time, they don’t have the kind of public art that we have in our spaces.”
Instead, the art that nigh and her team brings to the city’s public spaces meshes well with Tampa’s character and history, she explained. The goal is to improve “quality of life for residents” by tailoring the artwork commissioned to meet not only their needs, but the aesthetics of specific spaces.
She added, “It’s hard to measure why people like being in particular spaces. So I think looking at those reasons and understanding who we’re out there working for is just really critical.”

Silhouettes Profiles Dr. Lynne Santiago

Dr. Lynne Santiago

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 22, 2017 edition of La Gaceta

By: Tiffany Razzano

Growing up, Dr. Lynne Santiago always knew she wanted to help others through work as a counselor.
So the Long Island, New York, native decided to enlist in the Army when she graduated from high school in the early 1980s. In addition to serving her country, she’d be able to utilize the GI Bill to further her education. “I certainly wanted to enjoy the education benefit of [being in the Army], and I used it to fulfill my dream of becoming a psychotherapist,” she said.
Now, through her philanthropic work with Veterans Counseling Veterans INC (VCV) and her private practice, she’s able to bring these two worlds together, assisting veterans at a time when military suicides are on the rise. “I want to proactively help veterans get access to quality mental health care without them having to jump through a lot of hoops and red tape to get it,” Santiago said.
After leaving the Army, she landed in the Tampa Bay area in 1989. She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from St. Leo University. She went on to earn a master’s degree in mental health counseling from Nova Southeastern University and, in 2013, fulfilled her lifetime goal of earning a Ph.D. in psychology.
She began her counseling career in 1993, taking a job with hospice and working closely with terminally ill patients and their families. From there, she went on to work for a community mental health agency.
In 2000, Santiago joined a group practice in Tampa run by a clinical sexologist. She added sex therapy to her repertoire as well. After three years, she founded a private practice, working mainly with adults who were dealing with ramifications from childhood trauma, such as neglect or sexual and physical abuse.
“Then in 2008, I began to sharply focus my career on veterans and suicide prevention,” she said.
She remembers, like it was yesterday, watching a news program on the rise of military suicides.
“I could almost tell you exactly where I was sitting,” Santiago said.
The numbers astonished her. “It seemed like almost every day there was another account, another suicide,” she said. “It was heartbreaking. These were like my brothers and sisters. Even if I don’t know them, there is a camaraderie. No matter what branch, no matter what era we served, there’s a sense of family.”
She added, “I felt very helpless and wanted to do something.”
Despite running a private practice, she immediately began looking for jobs where she could work directly with veterans. “I even thought about reenlisting,” she said.
Santiago learned through a friend that the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital was hiring staff to launch its suicide prevention program. So she applied.
Barely two months after viewing that news program about veterans’ suicides, she was sitting in an office at the VA hospital figuring out how to handle her private practice. She worked at the VA for six years, developing programs, outreach and education.
When she returned to her private practice in 2014, she began seeing a variety of clients again. But she also made it easy for veterans to seek mental health treatment with her. She began working closely with a variety of nonprofits dedicated to helping veterans pay for counseling sessions.
She was also appointed COO of the nonprofit organization Veterans Counseling Veterans INC, which was founded by her former intern at the VA hospital, Ellsworth “Tony” Williams.
Williams, who served in the Army on active duty for more than 24 years, received numerous awards for his service. He realized that many of the VA counselors didn’t have military experience of their own. “That was an obstacle for mental health counselors [serving veterans,]” Santiago said. “Many veterans feel that nonveteran [counselors] can’t relate to what they’re going through. Being in the military is its own culture. They even have their own language. They have unique needs and unique experiences.”
Though the VA system has begun offering military-culture training to all employees, Williams created Veterans Counseling Veterans to assist veterans and their families in the mental health profession. “Part of what we do is help veterans who are in training and in school to become counselors,” Santiago said. “So when they graduate they are successful and available in the community to help their fellow brothers and sisters. We’re looking to build a network of veterans who are counselors in the community.”
VCV offers mentorship, peer-to-peer support, educational training on military culture and other assistance.
The organization will host its first-ever fundraiser Sunday, Sept. 24, 3 to 7 p.m., at the Bad Monkey in Ybor City. Entry is free, but the group is hosting a Boot Drive. “We’re asking people to bring new or gently used boots that we will distribute to homeless veterans,” Santiago said.
There will also be entertainment, food and drink specials, as well as a silent auction and raffle items. “It’s just a fun day out in Ybor City to support our warriors,” she said.
It’s taken VCV three years to get to the point where it’s ready to take action, she added. “[The organization] has kind of morphed and changed. Like any organization that’s getting started, we were kind of all over the place,” she said. “We’ve taken the time to narrow things down and be a lot clearer about what our mission and vision are.”
Now the VCV board is focused on taking the organization to the next level – including reaching out to potential community partners and raising money for current and future programs. “Right now, we’re involved with putting together different committees and networking with students and the community,” she said. “We’re hoping to use these funds to start to put together our network of counselors so that we’re able to provide direct services to veterans in the area.”

Silhouettes profiles Kent Bailey

Kent Bailey

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 8, 2017 edition of La Gaceta

By: Tiffany Razzano

Though he carved out a successful career for himself as an attorney, the law was never Kent Bailey’s first love. Instead, deep down, he had always dreamed of one day being a published author.
But law wasn’t even his second or third or fourth love. (Those would be beer, music and business, not necessarily in that order.)
The Virginia native – he grew up just outside Washington, D.C. – initially studied English and creative writing at George Mason University. He only went on to earn his law degree from the University of San Diego because “it seemed like one of those jobs where I could actually support myself,” he said. “It had nothing to do with a love for the law.”
So in 2011, nearly a decade into his career, his mind began to wander to more creative endeavors. He had been experimenting with home brewing for a couple of years at that point, and toyed with the idea of starting a brewery. “Every home brewer dreams of running a brewery as soon as you brew that first beer,” Bailey said.
But he pushed that thought aside and decided he would finally write his novel. The brewery plan kept calling to him, though. “Every time I sat down to write this novel, I got stuck,” he said. “So I started writing a business plan for the brewery instead. I would sit down to write and I would think, will it be the novel or the business plan? And I would always go with the business plan. I took that as a sign that I should go in that direction.”
That business plan became the foundation for Ybor City’s Coppertail Brewing Co.
Like many, Bailey fell in love with beer as a college student. A study abroad trip in Europe introduced him to new styles and expanded his knowledge of beer. “While backpacking, that was my first time really experiencing beer that wasn’t Bud Light, Miller Light, that kind of thing,” he said. “I loved encountering things that seemed so exotic, but are common to me now, like Guinness.”
After returning home from that trip, he brewed his first batch of beer. “It was horrible,” he said. “I hated it. My friends hated it. I decided I don’t really need to brew it; I’ll just drink it.”
He spent a year working in the Washington, D.C., area before following his parents and brother to Tampa in 2002. He took a job as in-house counsel for a private investment firm.
In 2009, he discovered Cigar City Brewing. “That really opened my eyes to what beer could be,” he said. “I started to get excited about craft beer.”
Everywhere he went, he would try a new brand. “Dogfish Head, Victory, my love affair just grew. But it produced in me a desire to see more Florida beer on store shelves,” he added. Often, he’d go to the supermarket and would only see one or two local beers available.
It wasn’t long before he began brewing beer with a friend, and, eventually, on his own. He brewed those early batches on his kitchen stovetop before being relegated to the garage by his wife. “She didn’t like me constantly spilling things, so she kicked me out to the garage,” he said. “I decided that meant I should buy more and bigger equipment.”
In 2013, he “took a leap that to me makes such perfect sense, but to so many people was unbelievable” and put his business plan into action. He connected with Casey Hughes, head brewer for Flying Fish Brewing Co. in New Jersey, and hired him to work for the newly founded Coppertail Brewing. Hughes, an award-winning brewer, had started his career with Key West Brewing and always planned to return to Florida. This was a fortuitous meeting for both of them.
Bailey knew he would need to create an imaginative brand, something that would stand out to beer drinkers. The company’s name came from a story his daughter told him when she was 5 years old. Coppertail was a sea monster who lived in Tampa Bay, she told her parents. “I loved it immediately, and it became a running joke in my family,” he said. “I loved the sound of it. I loved that we could have a lot of fun with the sea monster theme with the beer names and labels. I really wanted the brand to be about Florida and water and all the things that make this place unique.”
So he and his staff built the brand around “this mysterious and elusive beast that’s out in the water, that nobody knows anything about, but every once in a while you just see this copper tail,” he said. Each beer they brew tells the story of “an encounter or sighting of Coppertail.”
He hired artist Evan B. Harris to create the labels. “I really wanted the artwork to be distinctive,” Bailey said.
Other brewers were mimicking popular beers on the market. So he decided to take Coppertail in the opposite direction. “It felt like everybody else was going with cans that were brightly colored and looked exactly like Cigar City,” he said. Coppertail, on the other hand, was sold in glass bottles and its label art boasted a distinctively dark and moody look. “I wanted people to be able to say, ‘Hey, I knew this [beer] was from you guys because it looks like it’s from you guys.’”
Next they established their “core four” beers, Bailey said – Free Dive, Unholy, Wheat Stroke and Night Swim. These are their most popular beers, he added, though Wheat Stroke will soon be replaced with the Independent Pilsner.
“Free Dive was one of the first beers we ever made and it was all about not trying to be like Jai Alai. The idea was, let’s be the opposite of Jai Lai,” he said. “Cigar City already makes Jai Alai better than anybody else. Why compete with them?”
Coppertail began brewing beer on a larger scale and opened a small tasting room in an historic building on East 2nd Avenue during the summer of 2014. The building has served many purposes for more than a century, but many of Ybor City’s older residents are most likely to remember it as a Hellmann’s mayonnaise factory and an Avila olive packing plant.
He had fallen in love with Tampa, Ybor City especially, and wanted to do his part in preserving its history. So he restored the older building as best he could, though the roof needed to be raised and the concrete floor strengthened.
That first tasting room didn’t fit many people, maybe 40 or 50, at best, he said. “I remember walking into that little room and seeing it jam-packed and realizing there was a market for our beer.”
He scrambled to borrow money, and not only expanded the brewery, but also built a larger tasting room and restaurant. “Ever since we opened this area, it’s been a good decision, because it brought a lot more people in,” Bailey said.
He had planned on this growth from the beginning, he added. He realized that the number of breweries per capita in Florida was lower than in other states though demand was rising. “There really wasn’t enough of them,” he said. “Craft beer was underrepresented in Florida. From day one, we were pretty focused on wanting to grow and being ready to grow when that happened. We figured why not? If we grow, we’ll be ready, and if we fail, then it doesn’t matter anyway.”
He hasn’t forgotten about that unfinished novel, though. “Maybe one day I will actually write something worth publishing,” he said. “But for now, this is a whole lot of fun and it takes up all of my energy and creativity. Making beer is a fun and creative practice.”

Silhouettes profiles Marilyn Meredith Collier

Marilyn Meredith Collier


By: Tiffany Razzano

This article appeared in the Aug. 18, 2017 edition of La Gaceta

As a native of Nashville, Tennessee, Martine Meredith Collier was surrounded by the arts from an early age.
Her parents, though not artists themselves, always encouraged her love of self-expression and creativity, she said. So by the time she was 7 years old, she was part of the Nashville Children’s Theatre.
“[Nashville] is a fabulous arts community with great universities and wonderful art,” she said. “That children’s theater was fabulous training ground. It was an excellent theater.”
She performed through high school and at 16, became a dancer for Minnie Pearl, a country comedienne and singer who appeared at the Grand Ole Opry for more than 50 years and was also a part of the television show “Hee Haw.” Pearl, whose real name was Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon, lent her name to a fried chicken franchise in the late 1960s. Collier was one of six dancers hired to help her promote that endeavor.
“Minnie was nothing like her character on stage,” Collier said. “She was actually a Nashville society lady – Mrs. Sarah Cannon. She was tough like a drill sergeant. If we were going out to events with her, she was very strict. But she was a wonderful role model for leadership, when I think back now, seeing how she carried herself and seeing what a powerful leader she was and how protective she was of the people who worked for her and how professional she was. Those mentors you have early in life you don’t realize will have a long-term impact. But there’s no doubt that she did. She was pretty impressive and she was quite forceful.”
Collier went on to study acting at Memphis State University and acted professionally after graduating. She was involved with professional theaters in Memphis, and also, for a period, joined a dinner theater tour of Tennessee and Oklahoma. “I sort of phased out of Memphis and did quite a bit of traveling for shows,” she said. “I didn’t like that much. I like having my own community and kind of being a catch to that community. When you’re touring around like that, you can’t even have a house plant or a cat. It’s very nomadic. It just wasn’t me.”
At 25, she took her first job in arts administration – an assistant director position at a children’s theater, the Red Balloon Players, in Memphis. “I really liked that,” she said, “and got more into marketing, fundraising and arts administration, and really found my niche.”
This launched a whole new career “behind the scenes” for her. In addition to the arts, she also held administrative roles within the non-profit sector as well, at universities and arts-oriented schools.
Though she loved the arts, she found being in administration was a better fit for her. “The life of an artist is very difficult and unpredictable,” Collier said. “I really appreciate that and have lived that, and that’s why I support artists. They do so much for the community, but don’t always have a good safety net.”
She added, “I’m much better in the audience and helping them get funding and promotion than being an artist.”
From 1990 to 2002, she served as director of admissions, development and public relations for The Heritage School. She then joined the Georgia Council for the Arts for one year as community arts development manager. This is when she decided to go back to school to earn her masters in arts administration from Goucher College in Maryland.
She held the district chair at the Arts Leadership League of Georgia from 2004 to 2006, before heading to Florida to take on the executive director position for the Sarasota County Arts Council for two years.
Next, Collier spent two years in Seattle as director of development and membership for Grantmaker in the Arts. From there, she landed in Dayton, Ohio, an eight-county regional organization in the Miami Valley, to serve as president and CEO of Culture Works. She left that role at the end of 2016 to become the executive director of the Arts Council of Hillsborough County. She’s excited to be supporting the arts in Tampa and Hillsborough.
“I think this community is just bursting with potential and so much has happened here in the past eight years,” she said.
While working for Sarasota County Arts Council, she had the chance to visit and explore Tampa. “It’s such a different community now,” she said. “The downtown is so vibrant and young artists are bubbling up all over. I love the diversity of the community and the different ethnicities. It’s such a great melting pot.”
Collier has spent the past eight months getting to know her new community. “I went on a listening tour when I first got here,” she said. “I talked to all the arts organizations. The people in the business community. The school board. They all gave me such good information to help form a direction for the organization. Everyone has been so warm and welcoming.”
She added, “I’m having a blast and I just think the world of this community. It has so much potential to become nationally known for arts and culture. It’s already nationally known for its sports, but I’d love it to become known for the arts.”
At the end of June, the Arts Council board voted to implement a new strategic plan. The plan is the result of a community-wide study that was conducted throughout the county with the help of Americans for the Arts. “We compiled a lot of data and found out what the community would like to see and what would help them connect with the arts in our community,” she said. “Basically, what can we do better and what needs can we fill.”
A common suggestion in the survey was that the organization create an annual guide to the arts in Hillsborough County. So Arts Council staff got to work to quickly put together a guide in time for the fall season, Collier said.
“I have to commend the staff of the Arts Council,” she added. “The two staff members who did this pulled it together in five weeks and it looks like it took more time than that. It looks quite stunning.”
The guide will be available at various arts and cultural locations throughout the county. “This is a real tool for every citizen in the community to find museums, venues and probably places they don’t even know about,” she said. “There’s not been anything here quite like it before. I think it’s going to be very helpful.”
Another result of the survey and new strategic plan is that the Arts Council will focus more on “cultural equality,” Collier said. “We want to make sure grant making and all aspects of the community are reaching everyone. We are looking to get more diversity on our board and committees. This means geographic diversity, meaning different parts of the county; ethnicities; and age.”
The organization will also plan a summit on issues of cultural equity, she added.
The Arts Council hopes to connect with local educations by adding an arts education component to its website, as well. It will be a resource for teachers and parents seeking opportunities for area students.
Collier is also excited about a special event on Thursday, Sept. 14, 8 a.m., at the Tampa Theatre. National expert Randy Cohen, who vice president of research for the Americans for the Arts, will present on “Why the Arts Mean Business for Tampa Bay.” Community leaders, business owners and arts organizations are invited to this free event, which will focus on the economic impact of the arts, including tourism and job creation, in Hillsborough. An economic impact study completed over a year ago shows there is a $433 million annual economic impact on the county, Collier said.
“That’s a huge increase over what it was when it was last done 10 years ago,” she added. “I think Tampa and Hillsborough County are at a wonderful tipping point for growing and connecting the arts community and being more nationally recognized for arts and culture.”

Silhouettes profiles Grant Mehlich

Grant Mehlich

By: Tiffany Razzano

This article appeared in the Aug. 4, 2017 edition of La Gaceta

When Grant Mehlich landed in Tampa in 2006, he only knew one person in the area.
Born on the East Coast of Florida in the small beach town of Stuart, just north of West Palm Beach, he headed to Tallahassee to study at Florida State University after high school. From there, once he earned a degree in economics and finance, he went to New York City for three years.
He’d only visited Tampa once before, for Gasparilla. “So Tampa wasn’t even on [his] radar” when he began thinking about his next move. “But I came and visited my friend and really fell in love with it,” he said.
He took a job with a large insurance brokerage firm in Tampa. Mehlich knew he needed to find a way to meet new people, so he turned to the best place he knew for that: FSU’s alumni association.
He joined the Tampa Bay Seminole Club, the alumni association’s local offshoot. “I wanted to meet more people and obviously, being a Seminole, one thing we all have in common is we all love our school,” he said. “If you’re a graduate of FSU, you love your school.”
He became heavily involved with the club immediately – today, he’s club president – and founded one of its signature events, the Tampa Noles Block Party. “Our job is to promote FSU in the community and raise awareness,” he said. “One thing we’ve done really well is throw this block party.”
This year’s event is set for Saturday, Aug. 12. Check-in starts at 2 p.m. at the Italian Club and takes place at 18 venues spanning four city blocks. “We go all night long,” Mehlich noted. The club expects around 4,000 attendees.
He added, “When you look at it from an economic development standpoint, we’ve injected over $1 million into the Ybor City community [since it first started]. Many of the bars tell us it’s one of their largest days, of the year in sales, and even rivals Gasparilla.”
Regular tickets are $25 and tickets the day of the block party are $40. Since its inception, the event has raised more than $400,000 for local scholarships through ticket sales. “Everything we collect literally goes to local students,” Mehlich said.
Last fall, the Tampa Bay Seminole Club donated $50,000 to the FSU CARE program. It was the largest single donation in the club’s history and it was also the largest single donation to CARE through its matching grant program. “The really cool thing about this program is it was earmarked and matched by the state dollar for dollar,” he said. So because of the club’s efforts, the CARE program received $100,000. The donation funded 33 scholarships for students from Hillsborough County to attend FSU.
CARE, which is an acronym for the Center for Academic Retention & Enhancement, assists first-generation, low-income and predominantly minority students attending FSU. Many of them are high-risk students as well, Mehlich commented. He added, “Some of these low-income students don’t have that support mechanism, they don’t have families, some are, in fact, homeless and at high risk of dropping out.”
So CARE does more than simply fund their education, it serves as a support system throughout their four years at FSU. “This really sees them through the entire process,” he noted. “The program has a 90 percent graduation rate. It’s astronomical and fantastic what it does. It’s just an amazing program.”
He learned about CARE through a FSU-sponsored leadership conference. “It really struck a chord with me,” he said. “It was never on my radar until then. We’re really impressed by it. It’s such an incredible program and I was shocked to even find out about it.”
Tampa Bay Noles Club also has its own, separate, $250,000 scholarship endowment that it uses to support FSU students from the Tampa Bay area.
The club’s fundraising efforts caught the eye of the local University of South Florida alumni chapter. Last year, the USF group approached the Noles for assistance with creating their own pub crawl block party to serve as a scholarship fundraiser.
“Obviously, we’re in USF’s backyard and outnumbered by them 4 to 1,” Mehlich said. The USF chapter is hosting its second block party a week after the Noles on Saturday, Aug. 19. “There’s a friendly rivalry, but from a scholastic standpoint, we have no problem helping them out.”
He added, “[University of Florida] might be a different story. I don’t know if I’d be as helpful to them as I was with USF.”
The Tampa Bay Seminole Club, which taps into the nearly 20,000 FSU alumni in the area, hosts a number of other events throughout the year from networking meetings to game-watching parties at area bars, including Gaspar’s Grotto. The group also recently launched Tampa Noles Ladies Night Out at a South Tampa Painting With a Twist, which drew a number of female FSU graduates and their families.
Mehlich is involved in the community in other ways, as well.
These days, he operates his own company, GCM Insurance & Risk Management, which he founded in 2009 based in Ybor City, “I could not have picked a worse time to start a business,” he said. “It was the height of the economic recession, my mother got sick, and this all happened in six months. I had a lot on my plate. But I could not have had a more rewarding experience.”
He also lived in Ybor City at the time, his love affair with the historic district dating back to his early days in Tampa. “I thought I was going to move to South Tampa, where all the action is,” he said. “By chance, I took a wrong turn and discovered Ybor City and fell in love with it.”
Though he now lives in Seminole Heights, he remains a major proponent of Ybor City, where GCM is still located. He’s also on the board of the Ybor City Development Corporation (YCDC), which he currently serves as treasurer. “I’m essentially the treasurer of Ybor City. We manage the CRA funds for the area on behalf of the City of Tampa,” Mehlich said.
He’s proud of the YCDC’s long-term planning for the district and said the group is starting to see the results of its efforts. “We really organized in helping Ybor through the transition. With the downturn in 2009, 2010, Ybor City was struggling,” he said.
There are a number of new businesses and development projects planned in the neighborhood that will really transform it and “change everyone’s perception of what Ybor City is.”
The area has already changed significantly since he first moved there in 2006. “When I decided to move to Ybor, people thought I was crazy,” he said. “Friends said, ‘You’re literally crazy.’ This was pre-transition [into what the district is today].’”
He added, “Now, some of these people are moving into Ybor or I see them every weekend here. It’s really cool to see the accomplishments we’ve had.”

Comic Gallagher Coming to Ybor

By: Mike Merino
Published Aug. 4, 2017

The Tampa Bay area has raised its share of topflight entertainers over the years. Superstar wrestler Hulk Hogan, baseball great Lou Piniella and actor Channing Tatum are just some who got their start on the streets of Tampa Bay.
But on August 12, Tampa`s most famous funnyman will be performing his outrageous act in historic Ybor City.
Gallagher`s reputation as a cottage-cheese-and-watermelon-smashing comedian was forged in the ’80s on the strength of his many TV cable specials and highly interactive performances.
Few may know that this internationally known melon-slayer grew up in the Cigar City, and that his rise to fame and fortune was developed as a youth in a local roller-skating rink.
Now a ripe 70 years old, Gallagher is coming for a free outdoor performance at the historic Centro Asturiano. Robby Steinhardt, a Tampa native, rock violinist and former singer with the rock group Kansas, will be singing his hits with Tampa Bay`s own Stormbringer. Other musicians and a variety of vendors and food trucks will participate at this daylong event.
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Leo Gallagher was born in 1946 in North Carolina. When he was nine, his entrepreneur father, always searching for a reason to move to Florida, packed up the entire family and moved to the Sunshine State. While Gallagher, whose nickname is Butch, was enrolled at Tampa`s Oak Grove Junior High, his father opened the “Roll-A-Rink Skating Center” on North Armenia Avenue, located just on the outskirts of West Tampa. His family of six lived behind the rink in a three-bedroom mobile home. “I became an excellent speed and figure skater, which helped my confidence,” said Gallagher, who added “I was also an Eagle Scout.”
An intelligent student, Gallagher went to Plant High School. “I was quite mischievous in those days, hanging out with my buddies and pranking folks at the Steak ‘n Shake across the street.”
Despite his youthful antics, Gallagher went on to college and graduated from the University of South Florida with a degree in chemical engineering. “I minored in English literature, which comes in handy when I mock language in my skits,” said Gallagher. “I often laugh to myself over the fact that I really wanted to be a scientist.”
After college, and still his outrageous and boisterous self, Gallagher decided to be a comedian. “I looked up my first talent agents in the Tampa Yellow Pages and found two,” said Gallagher. “One agent got me my first melon-smashing act in a bowling alley. The other agent introduced me to nationally known, comic/musician Jim Stafford. I began working as his road manager.”
Gallagher and Stafford hit it off. They traveled to California together in 1969. Soon he decided it was time to start performing by himself. He began honing his own act while frequenting many comedy clubs in the Los Angeles area. He was repeatedly denied appearances on the “Tonight Show” in the 1970s and 1980s because Johnny Carson disliked prop comedy. However, he was admired by a few of Carson’s staff. Gallagher eventually performed several times on the “Tonight Show” when guest hosts were filling in for Carson. Gallagher attributes the success of his career to his beginning appearances on Carson’s show.
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As a child, Gallagher`s mother knew he despised fruit, particularly melons. She tried to force them on him to help reverse his recurrent constipation. He eventually thanked his mom for being fruit-pushy because it resulted in him earning millions.
Gallagher is most recognized for his finale when he smashes fresh fruit all over the front row with the audience, loving every juicy piece flying aimlessly over their entire bodies. However, a clear plastic cover is draped in front to protect their clothing.
This portion of the act is a parody of ads for the Ronco Veg-O-Matic, a kitchen appliance made popular from the mid-1960s through the 1970s. He wrote the routine for the “Sledge-O-Matic” and sent it to George Carlin and Albert Brooks so he could say that he had written a script for some well-known comics. “I`m glad they didn`t take it, I might have ended up as that scientist,” Gallagher said.
Throughout his comedy career, Gallagher has always cherished his upbringing in Tampa. His memories of the area are strong and he has many friends and family still in the vicinity.
However, with over four decades on the road, his health has taken its toll. He has suffered four heart attacks, replaced two coronary stents and made numerous trips to the E.R.
“Despite my health challenges, as long as I can breathe and move I`ll keep performing and tearing down the house with my personal brand of outrageous thinking-man’s comedy,” said Gallagher. “Just show up in Ybor and be ready to get smashed.”
The Ybor City Melonfest Featuring Gallagher and Artie Fletcher is scheduled to take place:
When: Saturday, Aug. 12, 1 to 8 p.m.
Where: Centro Asturiano, 1913 N. Nebraska Ave., Tampa
Admission: Free. Vendors, food trucks, live music.
Info: (813) 229-2214