From beach rankings to an unwelcome Spider-Man, check out the top stories of the year from YourObserver.com
We love that you love the Observer in print. But, although we pack as much content as we can into every issue of the paper, there’s always more news on our website, YourObserver.com. And, this being Florida and all, inevitably, some of it is just plain bizarre. (After all, the internet was made for weird stuff, right?)
So, in honor of another year of news gone by, we bring you a roundup of our most popular online stories from 2018, some of which could only happen in the Sunshine State.
We’re No.1! Oh, wait …
People love lists, and we especially love it when we take the top spot, but it wasn’t meant to be this year. After garnering TripAdvisor’s Traveler’s Choice Awards for best beach in 2017, Siesta Beach fell to No. 2 when the rankings were revealed in February. The top ranking went to our northern neighbor, Clearwater Beach.
Although no longer top of the sandcastle, Siesta Beach still received an average ranking of 4.5/5 from travelers, with 80% of reviewers marking the beach as “excellent.”
Visit Sarasota President Virginia Haley said the No. 2 spot was still something to be proud of, especially since Clearwater Beach is much larger and has more visitors than Siesta Beach. “I would say that I’m actually more surprised that we’ve been able to sustain No. 1, and that we’re still up there at No. 2, because this is actual consumers with their rankings and their numbers,” she said.
Red tide wreaks havoc
When the red tide outbreak that ravaged much of Florida’s Gulf Coast came to our area in late July, it seemed every day we had a story covering where it was headed, which areas it was affecting and how badly, and when it might be over. We reported on everything from how communities were cleaning up marine waste (shovel your own, Manatee County!), to how businesses were affected (badly) to possible solutions (ozone? clay?).
It was also the first time we’ve ever heard Floridians actually wishing for a tropical storm (maybe just a small one), hoping it might break up the 130-mile chain of algae causing an unbearable stench and fish kills from Collier to Pinellas counties.
After sticking around for most of the fall, residents finally got a break from red tide in mid-October … for now.
Not so funny
In a post that went viral online and garnered national attention, 18-year-old Noah Crowley became infamous after a racist joke in his “promposal” went public.
In a Snapchat post, the Riverview High student was pictured holding a sign that said, “If I was black I’d be picking cotton, but I’m white so I’m picking U 4 prom?”
The day after the post sparked outrage, Crowley issued an apology on Snapchat saying he did not intend to offend anyone with his joke. “Anyone who knows me or ... knows that that's not how we truly feel. It was a completely (sic) joke and it went too far. After reading the texts and Snapchat’s I truly see how I have offended people and I'm sorry.”
Crowley’s parents also apologized, saying he will not be attending any more school activities, including prom or graduation.
For its part, the Sarasota County School District invited Trevor Harvey of the Sarasota NAACP chapter to facilitate a student-led conversation to talk about racial tensions possibly present at the school, among other issues.
We’re going places!
If there is there one topic of news always bound to be a reader favorite, it’s new air routes coming to town. This year was full of them.
It began in January, when Allegiant Airlines announced it would begin flying from Sarasota to Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh. Then, Frontier Airlines announced flights to Atlanta, Cleveland and Philadelphia, and American Airlines launched routes to Dallas-Fort Worth, Chicago and Philadelphia. But to top the year off, Allegiant said it would expand even further in 2019, adding nine more nonstop flights from SRQ.
Spidey sense gone wrong
At first, when patrons of the Sarasota Farmers Market spotted a man dressed in a Spider-man costume at the weekly event, they weren’t immediately alarmed.
After all, that same week there was a person dressed up as the Easter Bunny. It happens.
But when this friendly neighborhood Spider-man seemed to be a little too friendly with the ladies, market Manager Phil Pagano decided to tell Spidey to spin his webs elsewhere.
Alas, the costumed man returned to the market the next week, allegedly along with his pick-up lines, and was chased by a woman’s husband down the street.
When police arrived, they discovered the man behind the mask: 38-year-old Elvis Groman, who it turns out had racked up a series of arrests and citations throughout the state — as Spider-man and otherwise.
According to the March 24 police report, Groman said he would not return, and since then it appears he has stayed true to his word — but if he does, he can count on Pagano’s watchful eye.
“You know how they always say — if you see something suspicious, say something?” Pagano told the Observer in April. “What’s more suspicious than someone going all around the county in a mask dressed up, where nobody knows who he is?”
Coyotes ended up where?!?
There is not one, but two bridges separating Longboat Key from the mainland no matter which direction you travel. So the fact that coyotes navigated to the island using nothing but paw power is pretty remarkable.
Of course, the residents of Longboat were less than impressed with this feat, and sounded the alarm to remove the predators from the island.
Since July, when the new furry neighbors were first spotted on the Key, the town has held three workshops to educate residents and give them tips about how to keep their pets safe.
Although all reports thus far have been benign coyote spottings, Longboaters are determined to remove the critters. Recently, a resident tried to put a hit out on one coyote with a local trapper, who then informed police of her intentions. The town also is informally investigating whether property owners out east might accept the animals, and a town commissioner wondered if the animals could be placed on Sister Keys, a small string of isolated islands just off the Longboat’s bay side.
Turns out, coyotes are good swimmers, which means they may not have used the bridges at all.
Grove blossoms in Lakewood Ranch
The Polo Grill & Bar surprised many when it announced its immediate closing in April. But as quickly as it closed, a new question arose: What will replace it?
In July, Hugh Miller, owner of Bradenton’s Pier 22, announced The Grove would move into the landmark space on the corner of Lakewood Ranch’s Main Street and Boardwalk Loop. Aside from the restaurant, the new establishment would also run the attached 10,000-square-foot ballroom to continue serving as a venue for the community’s events.
After extensive renovations, The Grove officially opened for business Dec. 10, with patrons taking advantage of its new outdoor seating space.
Police donor arrested in shooting incident
This story started out a bit unusual, only to veer into the bizarre. In February, a 25-year-old New York native who was had visited Longboat growing up and was staying on the Key while working on MTV’s “Siesta Key” reality show, made a $234,216.35 donation to the Longboat Key Police Department.
Three months later, Flanzer was arrested on suspicion of firing three rounds from a pistol into an empty downtown Sarasota condominium.
According to Sarasota Police, Flanzer, clad in camouflage, a tactical vest and a badge, identified himself as a process server to gain entrance to the condominium before firing three bullets into the door of an empty unit. He then went to his room in the Westin, where he blockaded himself until police brokered his surrender.
As for the donation, it had long been spent on new laptops and software for the department. A planned plaque to honor Flanzer was canceled.
Python found behind Siesta Key home
It wouldn’t be a wrap up of online news in Florida without reptiles crawling where they shouldn’t be. In this story in January, a man looked out the window to spot a 12-foot-long python trying to slither out of the canal behind his home on Siesta Key.
Rather than leave it, homeowner Joe Volpe lent the snake a helping … er, pool brush, to get it out of the water. “[My wife] wasn’t too thrilled, Volpe said, adding that he thought the snake was in shock because of the cold.
Justin Matthews from Matthews Wildlife Rescue retrieved the snake and took it to the vet, who determined it had a slight head injury and was smaller than it should have been.
Matthews suspected that the albino reticulated python was a pet someone set free. But the story has a happy ending for our slithering friend: Matthews said he always wanted a python and took it home as his newest pet.