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Hitchcock's Market closing in Homosassa

Hitchcock’s Market in Homosassa is closing.

The last day will be Oct. 30, with a liquidation sale occurring shortly before then.

Hitchcock’s opened in August 2020 at Homosassa Square off U.S. 19 by Yulee Drive and employed 25-30 people.

But despite high expectations, customers were scarce and sales were low, said manager Samantha Frederick. She attributes it to lack of visibility from U.S. 19, the proximity of Walmart and Winn-Dixie which have lower prices, the lack of advertising, and inflation.

Frederick said she was forced to lay off most of her staff and is down to five employees now.

“I just wish we could have succeeded,” she told the Chronicle.

Hitchcock’s Market specialized in its meats. The store had its own butcher and its own brand of bacon and sausage.

Located next to Ollie’s Bargain Outlet, the building has been home to several tenants over the years. First it was a Sweetbay grocery store. Then it was Save-A-Lot. For a short time, it was an IGA before it became an independent grocer called Suncoast Marketplace.

There aren’t that many Hitchcock’s around. The Alachua-based chain has about 11 stores in rural areas throughout Florida. The closest ones are in Alachua and Levy counties, including Williston.

Rising inflation has been particularly hard on grocery store chains as they deal with everything from rising food costs, supply-chain shortages, lack of employees and shoppers doing more penny-pinching due to less discretionary income.

Whole Foods Market recently announced it was shuttering six stores in four states. Even grocery giants Walmart and Kroger are closing locations.


Local
King's Bay Restoration Project ramps up removal of floating eelgrass with skimmer

A stringy carpet of vegetation floated on the surface of King’s Bay in the city of Crystal River, sloshing up against a seawall.

With the adrift greenery in his sights from the enclosed helm of his pontoon-like vessel, Naythan Ramirez maneuvered Sea & Shoreline’s surface skimmer toward his target with care.

Ramirez then toggled several levers to command a pair of hydraulic arms extending from the skimmer’s bow to wrap around the grasses before he reversed, allowing the skimmer’s mechanical mandibles to pull their catch back away from shore.

“It’s designed to remove floating leaves off the surface of the water,” Sea & Shoreline lead biologist Ryan Brushwood said about the aquatic restoration firm’s latest device. “It’s not ripping anything out, it’s not harvesting anything.”

Mark Mekelburg, a Sea & Shoreline field manager, watched Ramirez’s surroundings for nearby obstacles, including manatees, and greeted curious yet appreciative waterfront residents.

“They love it,” Mekelburg said. “Everyone’s taking pictures, everyone’s intrigued by the machine.”

Once the skimmer was clear of shore, Ramirez throttled the vessel forward to funnel what its arms collected up a short conveyor belt ending above a 3,000-pound dumpster bag, where the matter slopped to the bottom.

busterthompson / Buster Thompson Chronicle Reporter 

Sea & Shoreline field manager Mark Mekelburg tends to a pile or eelgrass leaves and other vegetation collected in King’s Bay by Sea & Shoreline’s surface skimmer vessel, which was deployed to help maintain the King’s Bay Restoration Project in Crystal River.

After acquiring the vessel earlier this summer, Sea & Shoreline deployed its skimmer to the local bay to help maintain the King’s Bay Restoration Project for its partner, Save Crystal River.

“We’ve been really getting to learn it,” Brushwood said, “really honing in and getting an idea of what it’s capable of and how efficient it is.”

Save Crystal River 

Save Crystal River

Save Crystal River, or SCR, and the community nonprofit’s longtime contractor, Sea & Shoreline, have been working since 2015 to vacuum detrital and algal materials off the bottom of King’s Bay to make way for hundreds of thousands of native eelgrass plantings.

“It’s incredible to see the system come back to where it was,” Brushwood said, “and where we ultimately want it to be.”

It’s SCR’s goal to rehabilitate 93 acres of King’s Bay before Crystal River’s 100th anniversary as a city on July 3, 2023, but the growth of its eelgrass beds have already spread to over 200 acres.

“This project is the leading edge in the state of Florida, and we’re trying to share the information on what we’ve learned,” SCR board president Lisa Moore said. “We’re figuring it out, and we want everyone to know so if they this problem, they can fix it in their own area.”

While the project has opened more than 800 spring vents, and provided better water qualities and wildlife habitats, the abundance of eelgrass clippings afloat in the bay’s coves and channels has caught people’s attentions.

Skimming the floating grasses not only removes an unsightly scene, but also lets more sunlight shine through to give life to eelgrasses underwater.

After tiring efforts last year by its crews to rake out the leaves, Sea & Shoreline’s acquired its surface skimmer to make the removal process faster and easier.

“The project has shown outstanding success, and there’s going to be minor maintenance involved with everything,” Brushwood said. “Rewind seven years ago ... and the water body was being choked out ... so minor maintenance is totally worth it in my eyes.”

“The river will get to a tipping point to where it will be self sustaining for the most part,” Moore added, “but we’ll still have to worry about floating leaves.”

To learn more about the King’s Bay Restoration Project skimming operations, visit savecrystalriver.com/updates. For more information on Sea & Shoreline, visit seaandshoreline.com.

Sea & Shoreline skimmer operators, like Ramirez, try to go out daily to remove an average of between 1,500 and 3,000 pounds of vegetation from within restored areas of the bay permitted for project maintenance.

Aerial drones survey bay waters regularly to help guide skimmer operators to where the migrating vegetative mats are moving.

“Then we try to predict, using winds and tides, where those mats will move to, and we try to get them as soon as they get into the project area, before they get into the nooks and crannies,” Brushwood said. “We’re tying to make it as efficient as possible.”

Moore said SCR is fundraising to obtain additional permitting to get Sea & Shoreline’s skimmer into more locations.

“We’re solving problems as they arise; we just started on this so have a little patience,” she said. “We’re working, tweaking all the way through, making sure we make it better every time.”

As a part of their lifecycle during the fall, eelgrasses detach their long leaves to the mercies of tides and winds.

However, it’s been too early this year for the eelgrasses to shed their leaves, leaving boaters practicing irresponsible anchoring and propeller trimming as main culprits.

When a boat propeller digs eight inches or more into the soil, it doesn’t just rip out eelgrass roots, but also creates a trench to keep future plants from sprouting.

A major storm or tidal event can enlarge the trench-like propellor scars, keeping eelgrasses from growing there indefinitely, Brushwood said.

Staying in channels as much possible, along with trimming or raising a boat’s propellor in either low tide or shallower waters, can help reduce eelgrass clippings or uproots.

“These leaves can grow up to 4 feet tall this time of year,” Brushwood said, “and so it may look like you have plenty of clearance.”

Dragging anchors on the water bottom can also devastate the King’s Bay Restoration Project, and investing in either power-pole, spud or mushroom anchors, can help reduce impacts.

“They can be stewards of the environment, and help us protect what we’ve all been working on for seven years,” Moore said about boaters. “We can’t do it all so if everybody does a little bit, it will be a more-successful project overall.”


Crime_and_courts
Jury finds former firefighter not guilty of infant son's manslaughter, neglect

Jurors acquitted former Citrus County Fire Rescue firefighter Jose Dorta III of his 2-month-old son’s aggravated child manslaughter and child neglect.

A jury of three men and three women found the Inverness 35-year-old not guilty of both charges Thursday, Sept. 1, in Citrus County Circuit Court Judge Richard Howard’s courtroom, after almost four hours of deliberations over lunch.

Dorta, who had been released on bond, and his supporters behind him were brought to tears after hearing the verdict.

In his closing statements to jurors, Assistant State Attorney Blake Shore said “there’s no reasonable doubt” Dorta’s culpable negligence caused the death of Jose Dorta IV by shaking or throwing the infant on May 20, 2019.

“That’s what this baby’s injuries were consistent with,” the prosecutor said. “This defendant abused baby Jose.”

Michael Giasi, Dorta’s lawyer, said in closing statements the evidence of the prosecution’s case “fits their narrative” but the facts don’t connect Dorta to the crime.

“It does not add up,” he said. “It just flies in the face of common sense.”

Dorta decided not to testify during his trial, which began Tuesday with opening statements after a jury was picked Monday.

Before ruling Jose’s death a homicide, medical examiners found injuries of blunt-force trauma and hemorrhaging to Jose’s head and spine, along with fractures to his thigh and rib.

Authorities arrested Dorta May 21, 2020, following a year of investigations into Jose’s death. Dorta also resigned from the county fire department, where he was employed since 2016.

Shore told jurors Dorta was the only one caring for Jose while the mother went to the gym at 7:15 p.m. on May 20, 2019, and there were no signs the infant was fussy or suffering beforehand.

Dorta told Citrus County Sheriff’s Office investigators he called Jose’s mother first at 7:32 p.m. and then again at 8:18 p.m. when he found the infant had agonal or difficulty breathing. It wasn’t until 8:24 p.m. when Dorta called 911.

Dorta’s jury asked to relisten to the 911 recordings during their deliberations.

Shore argued Dorta gave detectives an inaccurate timeline of events leading up to his 911 call, and a nanny camera capturing partial clips from that evening contradicted Dorta’s statements.

“There’s a difference between a mistake and intentionally being misleading,” Shore told jurors. “Why is he lying to law enforcement?”

Dorta was cooperative with authorities right after he learned Jose died, Giasi argued, and was confused on timings because he was in a panic, trying to save his son. Giasi added the nanny camera also didn’t record any acts of negligence.

“There’s no evidence because it didn’t happen,” he told jurors. “It didn’t happen.”

In his recorded police interview, which Shore replayed for jurors on Thursday, Dorta is heard telling detectives he can’t remember harming his son.

“It looks like I did something. ... It looks like I killed my kid,” he said. “I don’t see myself or me doing that.”

“He’s talking in disbelief,” Giasi argued to jurors about how detectives pressured Dorta, a grieving father, during their two-hour “interrogation” to get an incriminating response. “And what did he say: I would never do that, I would never hurt my child.”

Dr. Edward Willey, Giasi’s expert witness on pathology and forensic medicine who reviewed the medical examiner’s findings on Jose’s autopsy, opined Thursday on the witness stand the infant’s prior and recent hemorrhages weren’t caused by blunt force from a homicide.

“There’s no evidence it did,” he said, noting the infant didn’t have external injuries consistent with such a violent force described by medical examiners. “I think that’s an error.”

Willey testified Jose wasn’t developing normally during his infancy, and also suffered from acid reflux, which could have choked the infant if enough stomach fluids rose up his esophagus.

“It’s like drowning,” Willey said. “I can’t think of any way to prove that ... I think it’s a reasonable explanation.”

Willey said Jose’s hemorrhaging could have also been caused by the recirculation of blood from the hours of CPR Dorta and hospital staff performed on the infant.

Dr. Wendy Lavezzi, the deputy chief medical examiner who performed Jose’s autopsy, testified in rebuttal to Willey’s opinions that many babies have acid reflux, but a severe case of reflux wasn’t observed in Jose.

Lavezzi said the amount of bleeding she found in Jose’s brain resulted from a head injury, and not from either a choking or resuscitation efforts. Lavezzi added the fracture to Jose’s leg also occurred before the infant died.

“In the constellation of these injuries,” she said, “... that points to child abuse, without another reasonable explanation.”


Local
Florida jobless claims remain at pre-pandemic pace

TALLAHASSEE — First-time unemployment claims in Florida remain relatively flat and at a pre-pandemic pace, reflecting strong economic activity amid lingering inflation.

The U.S. Department of Labor on Thursday issued a report that estimated 5,135 first-time claims were filed in Florida during the week that ended Aug. 27.

That was down from a revised count of 5,809 claims during the week that ended Aug. 20. Despite a brief uptick in January, Florida has been around 6,000 to 8,000 new claims a week for most of the past year.

The numbers are similar to the levels of claims filed before the COVID-19 pandemic crashed into the economy in early 2020 and caused massive job losses. But while the state’s economy has rebounded, businesses still struggle to find qualified workers to meet demand from consumers, said Adrienne Johnston, chief economist at the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

Johnston

“We actually are seeing, right now, there are more people, more Floridians in our labor market,” Johnston said in the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s “Future of Work Florida” podcast posted Wednesday. “That means more people, talented workers, are out there actively seeking work. And we actually have seen that employers are reporting more payroll numbers than they had prior to the pandemic.”

The Department of Economic Opportunity reported Florida’s unemployment rate stood at 2.7 percent in July, matching the level before the pandemic. The department will issue an August report on Sept. 16.

The July rate, reflecting an estimated 283,000 Floridians out of work from a workforce of about 10.66 million, was down from 2.8 percent in June and 4.5 percent in July 2021. It also came amid signs, including a drop in gasoline prices, that inflation has slowed after hitting a 40-year high of 9.1 percent in June.

Over the past four weeks, the state has averaged 5,754 unemployment claims a week.

During an appearance Tuesday in Live Oak, Gov. Ron DeSantis touted Florida’s economic climate, as the state had a lower unemployment rate than the national mark of 3.5 percent in July.

Phelan M. Ebenhack 

DeSantis

“People have gravitated here because they knew they could be free over the last couple years,” DeSantis said. “I mean, you look at these people that would come from these lockdown jurisdictions just to visit Florida. They’d get off the plane. And they’re like, ‘Man, you know, this must be what it felt like to go from East Berlin to West Berlin.’”

While businesses try to decipher varying economic signs, Florida continues to experience higher-than-normal numbers of people leaving jobs for opportunities with better pay and benefits.

“I would also point out that while most employers are reporting that they’re having struggles finding qualified talent, there are some concentrations in certain industries like leisure and hospitality,” Johnston said. “So, it is widespread, but there are certain areas that are struggling more than others.”

In August, state economists updated projections of general-revenue tax collections for the current 2022-2023 fiscal year and the 2023-2024 year by about $5.3 billion.

The increased projections, however, came with concerns about an economic “downshift” this fiscal year, which started July 1, and an anticipated slowdown in the housing market.


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