Christopher Spata

Christopher Spata has written 4 posts for The Digital Bullpen

Parking fees go up as parking spaces disappear

Finding a parking spot at the University of South Florida can be a battle, and at least one student has resorted to questionable battlefield tactics.

A woman who was witnessed placing a parking ticket on her own car outside the Business Administration building said she was just fed up with never being able to find a space when she needed to get to class in a hurry. She’d already paid the money for a student parking permit, but began parking in the hourly pay-by-space area to save time. When that got expensive, she realized that if she placed an old citation on her windshield, the parking enforcement workers who check the meters would leave her car alone. She’s been using the method on-and-off to park for free for months.

“No I really don’t feel bad about it,” said the woman, who asked that her name not be used. “I paid for a permit, and they’re pretty much not giving me what I paid for. I feel like they already ripped me off.”

With the majority of USF’s more than 47,000 students still commuting to campus, competition for parking spots is fierce. The parking situation has led students to frustration, desperation and a long-running joke about “parking lot stalking”— the tactic of drivers closely following pedestrians through the lot with the hope of snagging their space.

That’s why campus commuters might be surprised to learn that while sales of parking permits have been going up, the number of parking spaces has been going down over the last three years.  In 2009, there were 21,409 total spaces on campus. Since then, the number has dipped to 20,554, a decrease of 855 spaces.

In that same time period, the number of parking decals sold jumped from 46,519 to 48,109. That’s an additional 1,590 vehicles that need a place to park.

“It’s bad. I’ve had complete strangers pull up to me in the parking lot and offer to drive me to my car, just so they can get my space,” said advertising student Guillermo Novoa. “There’s no such thing as getting [to USF] right before class. You either get here really early, or you end up walking from the other side of the earth. Or you say screw it and park in a reserved space and probably get a ticket.”

Parking and Transportation Services said the shrinking lot sizes are an unavoidable symptom of growing pains. As construction of new buildings spreads, it eats into the space that was previously designated for parking. In recent years the additions of the Juniper-Poplar dorms, the new School of Music building, and most recently, the Interdisciplinary Science building, have all swallowed up some parking area.

The last big addition to parking was Lot 23T in the spring of 2011. But that lot, located between USF Sago Drive and USF Alumni Drive, has been criticized for being paved with loose gravel, and for being dangerous. With no crosswalk to the nearby Business Administration or Communication and Information Sciences buildings, drivers who park there have often been seen dashing across busy Alumni Drive to get to class. As of now, Facilities and Planning doesn’t have any official plans to expand parking.

“It tends to go up and down, but there’s not much you can do if you want to keep expanding,” said Mary Damiano, an administrative specialist for Parking and Transportation Services. “We lose a few [spaces], then on another project we might get back a few.”

And as the number of spaces went down, the number of citations went up. Parking tickets issued on campus have gone up by close to 1,100 tickets per year since 2009, according to records obtained from Parking and Transportations Services. USF drivers paid out $858,900 in fines for more than 30,000 tickets in the 2011 fiscal year. By far, the three most common offenses were for having no permit at all (11,516 tickets), going over the time in a pay-by-space spot (7,774), or for parking in a space that was reserved for another type of permit (4,158), the Digital Bullpen’s examination shows.

Also climbing rapidly in recent years has been the cost of parking on campus. Parking and Transportation Services has bumped the price of an annual student parking permit every year since 2005, when a permit cost $105. Today that annual permit is sold for $166, leaving some commuters like student Joe Wanczyk looking for other options. He parks at the University Mall on Fowler Avenue and rides to USF for free on the Bull Runner bus.

“I will not pay all money that just to park,” Wanczyk said while waiting at the bus stop. “School already costs too much. I can park right here and be fine.”

Others like Novoa said they don’t mind paying, but just want their fair money’s worth.

“There’s Gold Zone spaces that are always empty,” he said.  “They need to make some of those into student spaces.”

He may have a point. Gold Zone parking permits are sold to faculty and staff who pay close to double the amount of a regular staff permit to park in convenient Gold Zone spaces.  According to Parking and Transportation Services records, there were only 1,332 annual Gold Zone permits sold in 2011—well less than the 1,400 spaces set aside for Gold Zone permit holders. Meanwhile there were 24, 163 non-resident student permits issued for the Fall 2011 semester, and only 12,856 spaces to accommodate them.

Audio: Class of 1968 alumni share memories of an earlier USF

John and Marrene Boeren at the Gibbons Alumni Center.

John and Marrene Boeren have been married since their senior year at the University of South Florida. That was 1968. They recently returned to their Alma mater for the first time in over four decades, and found that while many things are very different, some things never change. They had some advice for today’s students too.

Click the audio player below to hear the full story.   

Students may carry blame for high textbook prices

Scotch-taped to the wooden door of room number 3046, on the third floor of the University of South Florida’s Mass Communications building, was a typed-out flier optimistically asking for the safe return of a missing iPod. Underneath the iPod-seekers info, in the remaining white space, someone else had hand-scrawled a much less hopeful plea.

It read: “Left a public speaking book in here on Monday. It’d be cool if someone could return it.”

As of the following Wednesday, nobody had been very cool to Nick Cicone. After answering the phone number attached to his note, he sounded pretty much defeated.

“There’s no way I can afford to buy another one,” the political science freshman said. “I’m just gonna have to wing it and hope I can make it through the class without having it. The prices for books are kind of ridiculous.”

Cicone said he paid about $80 for the missing book at the campus bookstore, adding that it was one of his cheapest this term. He made sure to buy a used copy so he could save about $30. He tries to buy all his books used if he can.

He’s far from the only one. Campus bookstore manager Nick Fagnoni said that most students would opt for used when they can. He also said that thousands of people have taken advantage of used book rentals since the store began offering them last year, saving even more than on regular used books. And in August, USF students Toby Thomson and Kenneth Costa launched, a site aimed at “cutting out the middle man” to help the campus population save even more by buying and selling used books to each other without the bookstore taking a cut.

With the average student racking up about $24,000 in loan debt before graduation, it makes sense that they try to scrape every penny. By seeking out deals on used textbooks, students like Cicone can save hundreds of dollars in a semester. But there is a bit of a catch. According to those who know the textbook industry, it’s those thrifty student buying habits—the repeated pattern of buying used books then selling them back to be bought again—that are making them so expensive in the first place.

Richard Hull, the executive director for the Text and Academic Authors Association, said the used book industry is the biggest factor pushing textbook publishers to sell to bookstores at a higher price. Keep in mind that it’s those publishers who put up all the money to produce a textbook, but it’s only sales of new copies that bring them any return. When a student buys used, the publisher and author don’t make any money; those profits go completely to the bookstore.

But most students will buy used, and because of that, the money a publisher makes on a textbook drops off very quickly. Publishers expect at least 60 percent of all the new copies of a textbook that will ever be sold, will be sold in the first year that book is released, before used books become an option. As used books enter the market in the second year, that number drops to 30 percent. In the third year, it’s only 10 percent.

“After year three, basically there is zero market for that textbook,” Hull said. “The market is too saturated with used copies that students buy and resell. So you can see how that will force the publisher to publish at a higher initial cost. They’re under pressure to recover their investment.”

That investment, it turns out, is a big one. A textbook author will often spend several years writing and compiling text for a first edition. And unlike trade books (novels, cookbooks and anything else made for a general audience), every sentence of a textbook has to be checked against sources to be sure it hasn’t been distorted or misunderstood in some way. For instance, the Association of American Publishers reported that the seventh edition of the intro level biology textbook, “Biology” by Neil Campbell and Jane Reece, took a team of 245 biologists to review.

Then there’s artwork. Every diagram and figure has to be planned and drawn specifically for that book, then closely checked by experts to make sure they represent the most current knowledge.

Next comes the process of producing the physical book. After typesetting and layout comes another round of proof reading to check for typos.  The book is printed and the pages are bound with a cover. For “Biology,” the first printing was 75,000 copies, requiring an estimated 675,000 pounds of paper and more than 6,000 pounds of ink. Those copies then have to be warehoused, while a team of field reps flies around the country trying to convince professors to use the book in their classes. If they’re successful, the publisher ships the book out to bookstores. If fewer students sign up for a class than expected, the publisher pays to have the extra copies shipped back from the bookstore.

By the time this is all done, years have passed, tens of thousands of hours have been billed, and the cost will often have exceeded $1 million. USF mass communications professor Edward Friedlander puts the cover prices into perspective.

“Imagine if Apple had to spend all this money to research and develop the iPhone, but could only expect to sell a thousand of them,” said Friedlander, whose textbook “Feature Writing: The Pursuit of Excellence” is in its seventh edition. “That iPhone would probably cost significantly more.”

Today’s students, of course, aren’t likely to start buying all their textbooks new in the hopes of dropping prices for future students. They’re understandably more concerned about saving money today. This would seem to set up a continuous feedback loop—one that always ends with four years’ worth of textbooks costing more than a used Hyundai. But USF professor Rick Wilber said he sees a new hope on the horizon: electronic books.

While the same amount of effort goes into the content of an e-book, the publisher no longer has to pay for storing or shipping thousands of heavy books. E-books also eliminate the used book market because they can’t be resold. A single license for an e-book that Barnes & Noble sells will only allow that book to ever be viewed on two devices. In some cases, the license for an e-book will expire at the end of a semester.

“Publishers are jumping up and down to embrace e-books,” said Wilber, who’s authored textbooks, as well as novels and non-fiction trade books. “In theory, they’ll be able to charge a lot less for an e-book textbook. And in theory, everyone should be happier. The publisher still makes money, the authors make money and the bookstore still makes its percentage. But instead of charging $100 for a book, they might be able to charge only $40.”

“The only question is, are e-books good for students? Do they still get as much knowledge? Maybe it’s a trade-off, in that e-books aren’t as easy to read, but they cost half as much. Right now, publishers are jumping on it, and we’re all just waiting to see how it all works out.”

But for Cicone, the student with the missing public speaking book, the relief won’t be coming soon enough. A week after putting up his note, he still hadn’t gotten a call about it.

“I didn’t really expect to get it back,” Cicone said. “I mean, I get it, I’m not even mad. We’re college students. For some broke kid it’s probably just too tempting to sell it and get the money.”

More than just a job for Howl-O-Scream actors

Front Yard Francis greets some guests at Zombie Mortuary.

It is quiet outside the mortuary as the late afternoon sun starts to fade. The high fence, spotless landscaping and brown, corrugated metal walls give the building the look of a warehouse on a military base. There are no signs to mark its purpose. Inside, a young man in an orange polo stands with his back to a corner, surrounded by zombies.

On every side of the windowless room, their rotting skin pokes out from under tattered dress shirts, hospital gowns and a set of mechanic coveralls adorned with a name tag that reads “Goober.” Their eyes, appearing sunken from the black circles around them, are fixed intently on the man in the corner. But he’s not afraid. He speaks to them loud and clear.

“So the potluck dinner is coming up soon,” he tells them. “We’ll start collecting the money for that this week. And I guess that’s it. Everybody ready?”

A small woman in a matching polo appears by his side. She has a huge smile and a streak of blue in the front of her otherwise raven hair. She leads the zombie horde in a chant.

“When I say zombie, you say freak. Zombie!”




“When I say living, you say dead. Living!”




It’s minutes before the first official Friday night of Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens would begin and the mortuary has become a zombie locker room. Outside, the Sand Serpent roller coaster careens by on its track.

Every fall, the seasonal Halloween attraction transforms the 335-acre theme park—a G-rated celebration of faux-exotic cityscapes, real-exotic animal shows and twisting metal roller coasters—into a land of PG-13 rated nighttime terror. This year the park is expecting more than 100,000 visitors to walk through its seven haunted houses, possibly many more.

It’s no small effort turning the Ubanga Banga bumper car rink into a vampire king’s lair, or making the pavilion across from the flamingo habitat into a prison filled with demented inmates. It takes some serious staffing. Between the hiring of costumed performers, extra marketing staff, and people to work the gift shops, snack carts and security gates, Howl-O-Scream added close to 1,500 seasonal jobs to the local economy this year.

However, nearly 900 costumed “scare actors”—the zombies, blood-suckers, chain-saw wielding clowns, and other miscellaneous freaks, are the ones who complete the illusion. Without them, the employee parking lot could never be a believable labyrinth of lost souls.

Among the hundred or so chanting zombies are college students, grandfathers, stay-at-home moms and aspiring actors and all sorts of others. They return night after night, and often, year after year, to work eight hour shifts that can push them to physical exhaustion. They get paid about $9 per hour.

And their world isn’t easy to penetrate. They’ve sworn a pact of silence, or, as Busch Gardens calls it, they “signed an employee confidentiality agreement.” They won’t normally talk about their lives as ghouls or scare actors. With their bosses approval, however, a few of them agreed to be interviewed for this story.

Deb Johnston, 53, has been an accountant for 25 years. This year marks her 12th year as a scare actor. She’s playing Front Yard Francis, the zombie who hangs out in the front yard with Front Yard Frank. She sings in church. Like any other grandmother, she beams with pride when describing her “gorgeous” 2-year-old granddaughter. (She’s got pictures to prove it.) But that’s not the only time she beams.

“There’s only two other people in this whole park that have been doing this as many years as me. I remember when there were only two haunted houses,” she said proudly. “In 2000 I was the Morgue Cousin at Bloody Bayou…the Voodoo Queen in the Wicked Woods…the Singing Executioner at Vengeance,” and so on.

But her first role, Witch 49, caused her to come back every year.

“Unless you’ve done it, it’s kind of hard to describe the exhilarating feeling you get when you really (scare) someone,” Johnston said. “As soon as you do it, you just want to do it again.”

Her husband of 19 years, 56-year-old Martin Johnston also knows the “addictive fun” of scaring people. He said he caused grown men to fall to the ground in fear during the six years he has been a scare actor.

This year he’s playing Mike The Mechanic, the zombie grease monkey whose nametag, reads as Goober.

Martin Johnston’s original reason for taking the job was a more practical than fun. He’d worked as a lab tech for over 13 years, but, he said, there wasn’t a demand for milk testers after most Florida dairy plants shut down.

“I was out of work at that time and (Howl-O-Scream) was good money coming in,” he said.

He has been a customer service rep since then and returned to school to learn medical billing and coding. However, without experience, it’s been tough to find a job in the field and is looking for full-time work again.

“It’s a good thing this is here,” he said.

Nikki Blue, the woman with blue bangs and big smile, is working at her first Howl-O-Scream as the stage manager for Zombie Mortuary. The 24-year-old recently graduated from the University of Central Florida with a theater degree and spent the summer in Utah as an opera stage manager.

Blue still lives in Orlando and commutes to Tampa. On a shelf in her apartment, zombie classics like Sean of The Dead, Night of The Living Dead and 28 Days Later sit mixed between her romantic comedy DVDs.

It was a chance to combine her love of zombies with her aspirations of becoming a stage manager that pulled her in.

“There are similarities to traditional theater,” Blue said. “Everyone has to audition and zombies are kind of the ultimate tragic character. They’re removed from all soul and emotion, but they’re still in that human shell.”

She’ll spend the night assisting with costumes and makeup, ensuring the mortuary is running smoothly, and coaching scare actors on how to stay in character.

“For zombies we tell them to pick three body parts and act like they’re broken. Then the next night they should pick three different parts. You know, so their one arm doesn’t get all sore.”

USF biology senior Chelsey Chynoweth is playing Tina Tinkle in the Nightshade Toy Factory this year. Her rubber mask is a mangled face with thick streaks of blood streaming from the eyes. She said she dislikes gore in scary movies.

For Chynoweth, becoming a scare actor meant a chance to escape from the shyness that was holding her back from meeting people. As a timid freshman, she came across the Howl-O-Scream booth at a job fair on campus. Thinking it looked like fun, she pushed herself to audition. She got the job and is now on her fourth year as a scare actor.

“When I’m there, it’s like being at a home away from home, so I feel more comfortable and less shy,” Chynoweth said. “There’s all sorts of people who work there. Some are in school like me, some of them have full-time jobs and do it for fun, and some are just weird, which is great, because it means anyone can fit in.”

Deb Johnston takes it a step further.

“It’s like a family, and every year I look forward to seeing that family,” Deb Johnston said. “It’s a weird, off-the-wall, nutzoid family, but it’s a family.”

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