Catalysts for change: people who made a difference

Al French

Boyish, optimistic, backed by millions of out-of-town dollars, Alain French thrilled Orlando for nearly two years as the potential redeveloper of Parramore, the city's most troubled neighborhood. Although his plans were as vague as his past (French made a lot of money as an indoor-flea-market operator in Tampa/St. Pete and lost it all just as quickly), he offered city leaders something they had been questing for. Something shiny and tall and well lit. Something for nothing.

As figurehead of Carolina Florida Properties, French spent $16 million on dozens of slum properties, promising to transform the neighborhood into an upscale shopping and entertainment district. In September he split as partner Ed Neill admitted his group had no developer and "could be land banking this for years and years and years."

But the city is on the move again, and now the Parramore is on the front burner as Mayor Glenda Hood announces a multi-million-dollar redevelopment plan. The Parramore area got no help from French and very little help from the city's $40 million investment in the past two decades. But if things change soon, in important ways, French has been the catalyst.

-- Edward Ericson Jr.

Louis Pearlman

As the unlikely progenitor of the new cult of nubility -- headed by the harmonious paeans of the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync -- Lou Pearlman may have proven himself the most influential Orlando personality you'll never see. But his products, er, bands couldn't have been more visible in 1998. Wherever they went the screams followed, successfully landing both acts in the upper echelons of Billboard infamy and securing at least a temporary place in the universal training-bra consciousness.

Pearlman's humble beginnings as an employee of Trans Continental Airlines may have served as slight inspiration for his later role as "Big Poppa" to the Trans Con Entertainment wing, but the whole thing would have probably just happened anyway, with or without his entrepreneurial injection (cue the Monkees or the New Kids any time now).

While 1998 may have been the year that Trans Con finally broke, it will also be remembered as the time when Trans Con broke up. The imminent dissolution of the marriage between management partners Donna and Johnny Wright (the former now spearheading her own imprint, Diva Records) along with the recurring threats of lawsuits from the boys themselves have left Pearlman in a precarious position. The relative failures of follow-up projects from Aaron Carter (Backstreet Nick's huggable little brother) and Solid Harmonie (the not-as-marketable "girl version") haven't helped, either. But with nearly all operations tucked beneath Pearlman's billion-dollar Trans Con header, he shouldn't worry too much. And it all looks so fun, anyway.

"I think the big thing is that the artists are ‘what you see is what you get,'" glibbed Pearlman in an interview earlier this year, probably alluding the simple nature of most Trans Con offerings. Closer scrutiny, though, may show something else. As with Disney, what you see can often interfere with what you eventually feel. As catchy as the latest Back-street bleat or 'N Sync nip may initially seem, the process of building music from the top down doesn't exactly inspire charm. It's pasting willing faces on mechanical industry. Sometimes it's better just to look away.

-- Billy Manes

Victor Perez/Gallery 6 Eleven

"There's no way a gallery can survive as just a gallery," says Victor Perez, so his Gallery 6 Eleven hosts open-mike nights, movement classes and other happenings. There's been a night of Latin culture called "Art con Salsa." There's the tantalizing promise of an Etch-A-Sketch show. And always there's art, too, in the more familiar sense -- at the moment twisted, coarse metal sculptures by Glenn Dobkin.

Sitting near the Virginia-Alden intersection, Gallery 6 Eleven's a textbook warehouse space. Plum walls, two sofas (one turquoise, overstuffed, one red-flowered, Victorian), pipes, paintings leaning against other paintings in corners, a pliable cat. Plus the kicker: no air-conditioning. Perez frets about the a/c, promises it'll be there soon, or one day.

For all of Perez's haphazard gestures ("I was thinking of changing the name to Gallery 6 One One, but it doesn't really matter to me") and his hazy business sense ("I almost lost the building six months ago"), the gallery has had moments of sure artistic cohesion this year. For example, those who attended an after-party for the Central Florida Film & Video Festival will invariably smile as they praise it.

Since attaining the warehouse space, Perez has received considerable help from ex-wife Kristen Perez, financial backer Steve Shain and others. Most famous of Perez's efforts is probably the annual "Nude Night," a charitable exhibit of nudes -- painted, sculpted, photographed, you name it. Artists pay to get in the show, hundreds flock to the chosen venue (Gallery 6 Eleven itself isn't big enough), and the proceeds go to the Hope and Help Center. It's a hodgepodge ("If they want to pay $35 to show their art," says Perez of the artists, "hey, it must be good enough"), but a surprisingly successful hodgepodge. The next one occurs in February.

"I feel like if I did it a little more seriously and treated it like a business," says Perez of the art space, "it could progress into something good." Who's to say. For now, Gallery 6 Eleven seems to chug along on serendipity and patchwork. We could all hope for so much.

-- Theresa Everline

Democracy Forum

With a small grant and some big questions, the Democracy Forum's Curtis Michelson set out to find out what happened in Ocoee on election night 1920. He collected some likewise curious volunteers and headed for the archives, soon unearthing new information about the riot and massacre in which nearly 500 black people were run out of town and several -- maybe dozens -- died. No blacks lived in Ocoee again until the 1980s.

Says Francine Boykin, an Apopka resident and Forum volunteer: "On the level of loss of life and property, Ocoee had more significance than Rosewood. It was political and economical."

"This has implications all over the county, and even up to today," says Michelson.

Indeed: Orlando was the last city in Florida to hold whites-only primary elections. The practice ended in 1950. De facto segregation continues.

The Forum's findings were dangerous enough to spark a raucous argument in September over the definition of "massacre." City leaders attacked the Forum as biased and freighted with hidden agendas. They spoke up and sparked an awkward, honest, cross-race dialogue. The story made the front page of the "Wall Street Journal."

-- Edward Ericson Jr.

Terry Olson

With the exception of Mayor Glenda Hood, no one was closer in 1998 to the epicenter of the downtown performing-arts struggle than Terry Olson. A co-founder of the Orlando International Fringe Festival and the Orlando Theater Project, the 45-year-old Olson placed the latest feather in his organizational cap last February, when the newly created Central Florida Theatre Alliance as well as his Sak Comedy Lab were tapped to occupy a city-owned space on west Amelia Street at a rental rate of a mere $1 a year. Had the long-vaunted downtown arts district taken its first step to fruition?

As Olson moved into the new quarters, the interim Alliance director turned his attention to the needs of member companies hungry for support, allowing them to rent studio space in the facility for $10 a day. Some of the Alliance's more independent troupes appeared leery of the arrangement's City Hall imprimatur, but Olson claims to be unaware of their concerns.

"It's an incredible situation that we get this space at this rate, and get to rent it at a low rate," he enthuses. "I don't see anything that could be a problem with that."

In November, word came that Olson had resigned his post on the Alliance's board of directors (and his status as Sak's managing director) to assume the new full-time post of executive director. It was a position that had been sought by another 41 applicants -- a marked difference from February, when Sak was the only firm to put in a bid for the Amelia Street space.

"There's still way too much to do," Olson says of the Alliance's future plans, which include intensified marketing initiatives designed to present a unified image to the public. "We're still a volunteer organization. But I'd much rather fail trying to do something exciting than not try."

-- Steve Schneider

Orlando Partners

It still doesn't have a name. But whatever moniker is finally attached to the 1,100-acre former Naval Training Center site, that name will go down in Orlando history -- and make its developers very, very rich.

Orlando Partners -- actually a consortium of more than 20 firms -- was picked in May to move as many as 3,200 residents onto the property after lulling the Orlando City Council with gauzy watercolors showing a commercial core surrounded by a neighborhood of trees and front porches, with a lake at the end of each curving brick street and walks of no more than five minutes between each park. The design calls to mind residential pockets launched in the 1920s and 1930s such as College Park and Thornton Park.

Not to be overlooked was the $5.8 million purchase offer for the land, which outbid three other competitors to cap a two-year review process. Total development costs are estimated at $500 million. Potential profits start at about $75 million.

As the property seller, Orlando was merely the pass-through agent; the city paid the Navy more than $4.6 million for the base, which was ordered shut down in 1993 after serving as a training facility for 27 years.

But the transfer of federal lands also carries the requirement that homeless services must benefit. Thus, Orlando Partners' payment will include an additional $3.5 million that Orlando will have to dole out. Where and how is uncertain; one of the earliest debates on base reuse made sure that homeless centers would be kept far away from the prime property.

Orlando Partners' first task will be to clean up on-site pollution and knock down most of the 250-odd buildings. They will be replaced with 1,900 homes and condos, 1,300 apartments, 1.5 million square feet of offices, 350,000 square feet of shops and 215 acres of green space. It all will be finished in an estimated 11 years.

-- Jeff Truesdell

John Ostalkiewicz and Fran Pignone

Like two sides of the same outsider coin, John Ostalkiewicz (say it loud: Os-tah-KEV-ich) and Fran Pignone (say it right: Pin-YONE-ay) created a scrappy, issues-oriented political debate where previously there had been only bored speeches and planned coronation. Citizens owe both candidates a debt of gratitude regardless of who they voted for in the Orange County chairman race.

In Central Florida, the raw power of entrenched development interests combines with apathy and is dubbed consensus. It takes cojones -- and cash -- to make waves.

Former state senator and diamond importer Ostalkiewicz spent more than half a million of his own dollars trying to keep Mel Martinez from waltzing into office unchallenged. Osti forced a debate on the questions of sprawl, taxes and light rail.

"That's the reason why I did it," says the conservative Ostalkiewicz. "I was and still am extremely concerned that developers pretty much have run this county for a number of years. We're getting to a critical mass ... where development has outstripped the ability of infrastructure to keep up with it."

Pignone, a former county commissioner and one-time darling of the insider gang, was portrayed as a loose cannon when she challenged former County Chair Linda Chapin on development four years ago. This year she proved herself a thoughtful, progressive policy wonk, counterbalancing Ostalkiewicz's right-wing prescriptions and criticizing Martinez from the left. She jumped into the chairman's race on the last possible day, spent $20,000 of her own and may have prevented Ostalkiewicz from wresting the office from a surprised and faltering Martinez campaign.

Although Martinez beat Osti in the general election (in part with a below-the-belt allegation that Ostalkiewicz was for taxes), Martinez was forced to campaign hard and articulate his positions more precisely than he might have. Thus tempered and tested by some lively debate, Martinez will likely be a better -- and certainly will be a more wary -- chairman now than he otherwise would have been.

-- Edward Ericson Jr.

Brent Miller/Illuminati

Orlando's pop and underground-art crowds have had a lot to be thankful for over the last several years. Due in part to several prominent artists making their presence known in Central Florida's dance culture and live-music venues, creative types have gained more exposure to the masses. Not only has this led to an increase in venues available to artists, but it has also resulted in a sense of pride and cohesiveness across the board. Nowhere is this more evident than at the art events organized by the collective known as the Illuminati.

Under the guidance of artist Brent Miller, 26, the Illuminati has grown from a loose-knit collective of artists into a community of creative minds who stage art happenings, called "Illuminations." Miller co-produced the first "Illumination" at Sapphire Supper Club in January 1997, which set the stage for succeeding shows. The Sapphire packed in as many painters, sculptors, photographers, computer-graphic designers and other assorted eccentrics as possible to exhibit their work. Dancers, spoken-word artists, DJs and live musicians were crammed into the mix; the result was one of the most unpretentious, chaotic events ever witnessed downtown.

This year, Miller and his Illuminati co-conspirators went on to throw two more "Illuminations." The Sapphire hosted one again, highlighted by a particularly inspired set by tribal-percussionists Umöja, and over the summer the Illuminati got even more ambitious and took the over the Wall Street Plaza triad of Go Lounge, Harold & Maude's and the Kit Kat for a three-ring circus of expression and exhibitionism. Miller's plans include another Wall Street Plaza extravaganza, and he wants to take "Illumination" to schools and charity events.

-- Matt Kelemen

And bear in mind ... others who've made a difference

While out to hear live local music you might have seen Alien Surf Productions' Dave Segal pursuing his everlasting attempt to videotape every single show at every single club for his cable show, "Bootleg Orlando" (midnight Sunday, 11 p.m. Monday), which brings into the light the too-often-obscured efforts of local musicians.;;

Unabashed liberal and strong debater Al Krulick ran against entrenched U.S. Congressman Bill McCollum and lost for the second time by about a 65-35 margin. Krulick, though, actually injected ideas into his campaign -- ideas like ending the silly drug war and providing health care for all.

Matt Gorney and the Civic-Minded Five drummed up money and interest in bringing experimental music to town. In November, thanks to the Civic-Minded Five, Tampa-based avant-jazz group SHIM played at Rollins' Cornell Fine Arts Museum, surrounded by Jasper Johns prints and downright-delighted audience members.

Somehow Keith Longmore found out that Orange County was set to quietly sign a new agreement with its cable operators, and he raised a ruckus. Now the contract is being renegotiated, and there's a chance we'll get a true public-access station not fettered to the cable conglomerate.

And anyone who takes cabs will give a little cheer for the Taxi Reformers, who are trying to loosen the tight grip that Paul Mears has on the system. They want the chance to provide better service -- if only Orlando and Orange County will give a drivers' co-op some of the taxi operators' licenses, which are apparently rarer than an unscarred manatee.

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