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Florida man’s tiny town features drive-in, barbershop, motel and more

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Christopher Spata, The Associated Press


Published Sunday, February 17, 2019 9:43AM EST

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — You can’t type “tiny town” into your phone’s GPS app, or see it from the street driving through the confusing, industrial neighbourhood where it hides. Instead, look for a patchwork fence of rusted sheet metal with the word “Painter” splashed across.

You can’t call ahead because Dan Painter doesn’t have a phone, but if you pound long enough, Jojo the boxer will start to bark and eventually the affable mayor might come to the door.

It can take so long that people think they’re in the wrong place.

Taylor Labuda went looking for the town with her boyfriend. They stood banging the door knocker made from an old wrench for 20 minutes before a big guy came to the door in his boxer shorts.

“Oh, hi,” he said. “Come on in.”

“We ended up being there for hours,” Labuda said. “It’s amazing. He told us his whole life story.”

The first thing you see when visiting Tiny Town is WTNT, Tiny Town’s tiny radio station with the see-through broadcast booth big enough for one person.

Then you see the barbershop with classic barber pole, the seafood restaurant where Dan had just cooked breakfast and the Sailfish Pier fishing pier, which has a boardwalk that’s the perfect size stage for a band.

The body of an old Ford is permanently parked at the drive-in movie theatre. The last movie to screen was Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof.

Next door to that is Dan’s Rattle and Crank, Tiny Town’s auto shop. Then the Flamingo Motel. It has just one room with a twin bed, but there is a swimming pool.

“The pool is only for motel guests, of course, and closes at 10 p.m. sharp,” Painter said. “Just kidding, I’m in that thing like five times a day.”

That’s across from the single-pump gas station, and the Asian bathhouse, with functional shower. Tiny Town’s trailer park is currently under construction. Keep in mind this is all on less than an acre, a lot less, though Painter isn’t sure exactly how big the property is.

Painter spent five years building his tiny fiefdom. It’s immersive, detailed and tropically colorful. It definitely has an Old Florida vibe.

“I think maybe we were founded in the 1950s, but the time we’re in now is the ’70s. You know, it’s that feeling when things are starting to get just a little wear on them.”

“It’s like you’re somewhere else in an Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz way, where the world is kind of the same, but different,” said Vince Pompei, a sculptor whose Pinellas Park gallery is called Monster Factory. “When you’re in there you feel like he found it all, but he built it all.”

In reality, both are true. Painter built everything, but from found materials or scraps that were donated to him. He salvaged all the paint from the dump.

“My friends dubbed it leftover St. Pete,” he said. “When houses and stuff gets bulldozed or knocked down, they drop off the materials. I’ve just got to pull the nails and cut it up.”

Sure enough, out front near the sidewalk was a big stack of white boards. He wasn’t sure who’d left them.

——

Every building in Tiny Town represents a piece of Painter’s life. An era, a job, a childhood memory.

In the back of the lot is the Officer’s Club, a nod to his “dads,” father and stepfather, who were in the military.

Painter, 56, wanted to be a Navy pilot. Wore a crew cut for years as a young man, got into the Navy’s Aviation Officer Candidate School, but his eyes weren’t good enough to fly. Plan B? Artist.

He has been called the Sasquatch of the St. Petersburg art scene. He’s known as an artist’s artist.

“He’s been around forever, but it’s always a rare sighting when you see Dan Painter,” said muralist Derek Donnelly. “It’s, ‘Oh my god, there he is.”‘

There was a little evidence of him around the city, like those eye-catching sculptures of horned, humanoid creatures mounted like hunting trophies in the now-defunct Amsterdam bar, but they didn’t even have his name on them. A friend, he said, was basically just storing them there for him.

He had another art studio in the Warehouse Arts District, years before someone got the idea to promote the rough industrial neighbourhood with that aspirational name. But his large-scale sculptures, like a galloping Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that incorporated real horse skeletons, did not fit in neatly with the kind of stuff tourists buy to stick in their bathroom.

He has never shown his artwork. Never been in a gallery or taken part in a sidewalk art festival. He preferred to swing a hammer as a carpenter to make money, which meant he could make art to keep it or to give it away, which is how he prefers it.

There’s something to be said for his lifestyle, said Gordon Rothwell, a friend and fraternity brother at Florida Southern College, now a lawyer in St. Petersburg.

“We had another fraternity brother of ours who tried to help him sell his artwork, but Dan wasn’t going to bend. He’d paint the side of a circus tent with these amazing characters like a frog man and a bearded lady, 20 feet high, and the guy would say, ‘Dan, paint something we can sell,’ but that just wasn’t part of it for him. If you had a house that could hold something that big, fine, but if not, oh well. … He stayed true to himself and his belief and vision.”

Painter said he has been homeless twice, once in South Florida and another time when he was stranded for two years in the Ozark Mountains.

He looks like a burlier version of Jeff Bridges’ “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski, and certainly has carefree, easy, dude-ness.

Sipping his black iced coffee from a mason jar, he said his foremost desire in life is to finish his projects, like Tiny Town, and his primary joy comes from working on them. Outside of that, it’s about having a few beers at the end of the day and watching Jeopardy! outdoors with the friends who stop by.

The Tiny Town property, on Emerson Avenue S and not far from the Duncan McClellan Gallery, was nothing but a dirt lot without water or electricity. A lot of Painter’s possessions were destroyed by the rain — a “great purging,” he calls it. He didn’t work paid jobs, just worked full time on the town.

He has no money to speak of, but it doesn’t feel accurate to call him broke.

“To actually live with no money and do it well is absolutely wonderful. You can feel very peaceful and content when you have no debt.”

Friends bring him clothes. Strangers who visit the town — there have only been about a dozen so far — have sometimes given him a few bucks for a burger, or some chlorine for the motel pool, but he said he’d never ask anyone to pay for a tour.

That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t like to make some money. Tiny Town used to have a hardware store, but that has since been sold and installed in a backyard in Tampa. He’d be happy to do the same with some of the other buildings, but avoids naming a specific price.

“It’s a really wide range. If you’re an a–, you can’t have one of my pieces. And if I can tell someone really loves a piece, we can work something out.”

He also has plans to rent the place as an events venue. Corporate parties at Tiny Town? Weddings at Tiny Town? Sure, why not.

Most fulfilling though, he said, will be if people finally see and enjoy it. He’d be happy to have you stop by.

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LIFESTYLES

As shopping habits change, Ottawa targets credit card swipe fees

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The federal government is taking aim at credit-card transaction fees as shifting shopping habits resulting from pandemic lockdowns have substantially driven up costs for many small merchants.

The budget released this week promises the government will launch consultations aimed at lowering the average charges — known as interchange fees — paid by merchants every time a customer pays with a credit card.

Though federal officials plan to engage with stakeholders, including credit-card issuers and merchants, about possible changes, Monday’s budget also raises the threat of legislation to regulate fees “if necessary.”

This is the third time in less than seven years that the federal government has pressured credit-card companies to lower transaction fees, which vary between retailers, types of cards and payment methods. In 2014, there was an agreement reached with Visa Canada and Mastercard Canada to lower average fees to 1.5 per cent. Then in 2018 a five-year pact was struck that included voluntary commitments to lower average fees to 1.4 per cent, starting in 2020. (American Express struck a separate deal with Ottawa.)

But COVID-19 has rapidly altered consumers’ spending patterns, creating pressure to revisit that deal. Many of the interchange fees that were reduced applied solely to payments made in stores. As public-health restrictions have forced stores to limit access or close, fewer customers are swiping, tapping, or paying in cash. As a result, businesses are bearing the brunt of higher transaction fees charged for online purchases – unless they pass those costs on to customers by raising prices.

“The pandemic has been a huge driver of credit-card interchange [fees] as people have dropped cash and have moved online,” Karl Littler, senior vice-president of public affairs at the Retail Council of Canada, said in an interview. “It is a rapidly growing cost and was a rapidly growing cost even prior to the pandemic.”

The interchange fees paid by Christina Kotiadis, co-owner of Toronto gift store Lemon & Lavender, have gone way up during the pandemic. She built an online store for the first time to process e-commerce orders, and more customers who visit the store are tapping cards to make contactless payments. She also bought a mobile terminal to take payments anywhere in the store, or at the front door, which charges higher fees than the store’s plug-in terminal. For health reasons, she allows customers to pay with cards even for small purchases and absorbs the added costs.

“I refuse to raise prices. I don’t feel good about it. Everyone is trying to stay safe, and I don’t want to raise the fee because they don’t want to use cash,” she said.

Before the pandemic, about 60 per cent of payments at independent grocery stores were made with credit cards, and the rest with cash or debit cards, according to Gary Sands, a senior vice-president at the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers. Now, more than 90 per cent of purchases are with credit cards as online ordering and curbside pickups become more popular, and the resulting interchange fees are adding up.

“It impacts prices, it impacts the ability of small businesses to stay in business,” he said.

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Ottawa considers taking action against ‘predatory lenders’

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Ottawa will consider lowering the maximum interest rate to stop the “predatory lending” of outfits that make high-interest loans, which anti-poverty advocates say have exploited Canadians during the pandemic.

In Monday’s budget, the federal government announced plans to launch consultations on lowering the “criminal rate of interest,” the maximum annualized interest rate for credit allowed under the federal Criminal Code.

For instalment loans — longer-term credit with high interest — lenders can charge up to 60 per cent annual interest under the usury rules.

Payday loans — high-interest loans that are typically due two weeks later — are exempt from federal rules under a 2007 amendment, if provinces have their own regulations for payday lenders, which all now do. 

Many low- or moderate-income Canadians rely on high-interest, short-term loans to make ends meet or for unanticipated emergencies, leaving them stuck in a cycle of debt, the budget states. 

Anti-poverty advocates have zeroed in on companies like Money Mart, Easy Financial, and Cash Money, accusing them of misleading advertising, not being forthright about the strings attached, and pushing borrowers to take out larger loans at the highest interest rates possible. 

They say the practices are continuing during COVID, when more Canadians than ever are facing financial hardship.

“They’re thriving, because they’re taking advantage of people,” said Donna Bordon, a member of the anti-poverty group, ACORN Canada. “People are afraid of losing their homes, so they borrow money from these places.”

The consultations are a “first step” in tackling predatory lending, Bordon said, adding she hopes they include more than industry representatives, who will sharply oppose any changes.

Despite low interest rates set by the Bank of Canada, poorer borrowers are more likely to lack the requirements to access safer loans from traditional banks. Instead, they seek quick cash from payday lenders, despite the risk of falling into debt they can’t escape.

In Ontario, for example, payday lenders can charge $15 in interest for every $100 over a two-week period — equal to an annualized interest rate of 391 per cent. 

Last July, the Ontario government capped the interest rate that lenders can charge on defaulted payday loans at 2.5 per cent per month. It also set a maximum fee of $25 that lenders can charge for dishonoured or bounced cheques, or pre-authorized debits.

In 2019, the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada found that two per cent of Canadians had taken out payday loans in the previous year. The percentage was even higher for Indigenous people, and low-income and single-parent households.

Last month, NDP finance critic Peter Julian tabled a private member’s bill to lower the maximum interest rate to 30 per cent, and to remove the exception for provinces that regulate payday lenders — measures ACORN supports.

The Canadian Consumer Finance Association, which represents payday lenders, said in a statement that while it’s still reviewing Monday’s budget, it’s opposed to lowering the interest-rate limit.

“Instalment loans are long-, not short-term loans, and they provide an important source of credit for many Canadians who cannot access credit elsewhere,” the organization said.

“Any reduction to the federal maximum interest rate will result in removal of access to credit for those Canadians with lower credit scores who previously qualified at the current rates. The government should not take any action that results in denial of credit to Canadians, or forces borrowers to access credit from illegal, unlicensed lenders.”

A survey of 376 ACORN members published by the group last February found 40 per cent of respondents were turned down by a traditional bank before taking out a high-interest loan. Seventeen per cent said they’re now unable to make repayments due to COVID-19.

The federal government should seek ways to provide alternative lines of credit to low-income Canadians, such as mandating banks to offer lower-interest loans, Bordon said.

Besides setting up a complaints process for consumer lending that’s stronger than the provinces’ systems, it should also consider postal banking for rural areas and small towns, she added.

The ACORN survey found that 70 per cent of its survey respondents had once turned to payday loans. Forty-five per cent had taken out instalment loans, an increase from a similar survey conducted in 2016, when only 11 per cent said they’d taken out such loans. 

ACORN represents low- to moderate-income Canadians. Sixty per cent of its survey respondents earn less than $30,000 a year.

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Federal budget 2021: Ottawa ties end of financial supports to completion of COVID-19 vaccination campaign

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The federal government will extend its business and income support programs until the country’s vaccination campaign is complete, but their subsidy levels will start to drop before the deadline for all Canadians to get their shots.

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s budget, tabled Monday, sets Sept. 25 as the end date for the direct business and personal income supports the government introduced in response to the pandemic. That is in line with the end-of-summer deadline Prime Minister Justin Trudeau set for the completion of Canada’s vaccine rollout. It’s widely expected Canadians could also be sent back to the polls around that time.

The government proposes spending $15.1-billion more to extend the emergency support programs until September and create a new subsidy, which Ms. Freeland called a “lifeline” for Canadians and businesses in her speech to the House of Commons.

The budget also, for the first time, pegged the cost of Canada’s vaccine contracts at more than $9-billion; however, officials were not able to provide any details on that number, including how much has been already spent or allocated.

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce said it was encouraged by the extension of the business supports during the pandemic and cautioned against their hasty withdrawal. “The government must ensure that support is not being removed too early and that the level of support does not decrease too quickly,” president Perrin Beatty said in a statement.

On Monday, neither Ms. Freeland nor federal officials were able to explain why the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, the Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy, Lockdown Support and the Canada Recovery Benefit will all decrease before the vaccination program is expected to be complete. The government also did not say whether the decrease is based on metrics such as COVID-19 case counts or vaccination rates.

“No one knows for sure what the course of the virus and new variants will be, and that is why we are prepared to act further and to further extend the supports should the course of the virus require that,” Ms. Freeland said at a news conference.

The Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit and the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit are also set to end in September. If the pandemic gets worse, the government will introduce legislation that will allow it to extend those programs until Nov. 20.

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