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2023 Year-End Review: A look back at the most viewed stories

By Bryce Abshier – Contact Bryce@TheVOSM.net

(Thoughts? Submit a letter to the editor here.)

As another year will soon draw to a close, it is time to reflect on a busy 2023 that, for many, seemed to go by in a flash. At the Voice of South Marion, we were again fortunate enough to report on the happenings in South Marion county for an incredible fifty-fourth year.

For the Voice, 2023 was highlighted by many new initiatives rolled out in the spirit of engaging our existing readers, as well as gaining new ones. One such initiative placed an emphasis on sharing originally authored content online, as well as consistently sharing content on social media platforms. Overall, the initiative was a success in the sense of gaining more traction for our website, www.TheVOSM. net. Depending on the month’s news cycle, website traffic was up anywhere between 600% and 800% throughout 2023 when looking at year-over-year comparisons, according to Google Analytics data. In large part, the dramatic increase in digital readership was thanks to sharing articles on Facebook, as well as articles becoming indexed by Google and news sharing apps, like SmartNews.

As we press forward in 2024, it is our hope to see even more gains in readership.

On Facebook, the Voice of South Marion’s page made significant strides as well, nearly doubling from about 2,300 followers at the beginning of the year to 4,200 now. This is thanks to ongoing efforts to share current news content, as well as sharing nostalgic photos from the Belleview of old. Luckily through these efforts, more and more readers have managed to find the Voice on Facebook over the course of 2023. It is our expectation that significant gains will again be made on social media in the coming year.

Now for the fun part: the news articles that were viewed the most on our website in 2023. Unlike the printed newspaper, digital media allows us to see which articles are being read the most. We can then use this information to put together the best print product possible for readers, by focusing on what data suggests they’d like to read most. Here are the top ten originally authored Voice articles from 2023 according to Google Analytics, ranked in order with number one being the most read:

#10 – Rib Sale Benefits A Local Lifetime Resident In Need

Originally published online June 28, 2023. This article, written by Voice reporter Missi Branham, featured South Marion’s Jesse Mobley as he put on a fundraiser by smoking hot pork spare ribs. All proceeds benefited his sister, Julie Mobley Shoemaker, who was diagnosed in May 2023 with Stage 4, Signet Ring Cell Carcinoma, an aggressive form of Colon Cancer. Julie is 47 years old, a Mom, and a Grandmother. A total of 180 racks of tender, juicy ribs were sold.

#9 – State Authorities: Belleview Not A “Safe Harbor” For Illegal Gambling

Originally published online June 8, 2023. This particular article was one of many installments covering Belleview’s maligned (and now closed) internet cafés. This story featured an interview with Eric Carr, Director of External Affairs with the Florida Gaming Control Commission, who explained that these types of establishments were likely often operating outside of Florida law. “A municipal ordinance that attempts to offer safe harbor for such illegal slot machines has zero effect and provides no safeguard against prosecution. Consequently, owners and operators of any “adult arcade” or “internet café” offering illegal slot machine gaming are subject to both civil and criminal penalties,” Carr replied in the interview.

#8 – “Fish Games” On Their Way Out: Commission Prohibits Internet Cafés

Originally published online September 6, 2023. This installment on the Fish Games saga was one of the last, as the businesses were closed down shortly thereafter. In this article, the city commission voted to prohibit these businesses following a presentation by Belleview Police Sergeant Michael Miley, who had conducted walkthroughs with a state agent. Together, they inspected all eight internet cafes in Belleview on August 28. “Following the walkthroughs last week, the agent has advised me based on his training and experience that all eight locations are illegal gaming establishments,” said Miley during the public hearing.

#7 – Residents describe late-night Lake Lillian troubles

A pair of Lake Lillian Circle residents expressed their concerns to Belleview city officials following a number of disturbing incidents at Lake Lillian park, particularly at night. Complaints were initially made in May of this year, which led to Belleview City Commissioners voting unanimously in favor of posting a 10:00 pm closing time for Lake Lillian Park.

The complaints of the letter sent to city officials were unsettling and often related to homelessness. Other complaints included people continuing to stay at the park all night long. A portion of the letter read “A park monument was sprayed with graffiti, the young couple were having sex on the splash pad, we have found female underwear between the street and the dock. It is my belief that these various issues need to be brought under control because the reality is as Belleview continues to grow the issues will only become worse.”

#6 – Fines are stacking up: Belleview struggles with code enforcement violations

Originally published online August 30, 2023. A pair of ongoing code enforcement violations for separate property owners in Belleview resulted in fines. One such violation involved a dilapidated RV with two adult male tenants that allegedly caused trouble for neighbors on SE 55th Court. After months of tribulation with the City of Belleview, the RV was finally removed by the property owner.

#5 – Drone Service Discovers Sinkholes At Planned Belleview Community

Originally published online August 9, 2023. In a letter to the editor, drone-captured images submitted by “Sky’s The Limit” drone service showed what looked to be sinkholes that developed at the planned Bennah Oaks community in Belleview. Bennah Oaks, one of three mega-sized developments planned for Belleview (by relative standards), will have 419 residential units inside of city limits.

#4 – “Fish Games” Could Be On Thin Ice

Originally published online August 23, 2023. That’s right, another article focusing on Belleview’s internet cafés. This was clearly a hot-button topic for the community in 2023. In this article, city officials had a revelation that crimes of illegal gambling were being committed in Belleview. At an August public hearing, City Attorney Fred Landt detailed a meeting that he had with the police chief. “Chief Holland asked that I visit with him last week and unfortunately, he had to inform me that some operators of internet cafés here in the city came to him and admitted that they had machines in their establishments that they knew were illegal,” said Landt.

“One of the things that was particularly concerning to the chief, and to I, was that our police department lacks the expertise to tell an illegal machine from a legal machine,” Landt claimed. “It lacks the manpower to go out and test all of them that are in the city, even if they knew, and last, if they had to seize machines that are illegal, we have no way to store them because they’re quite large.”

#3 – Bah Humbug! “Belleview Christmas Tree” Removed For FDOT Project

Originally published online July 12, 2023. The Florida Department of Transportation doesn’t seem to be a very popular institution amongst locals in Belleview. A series of changes, labeled by the FDOT as “improvements”, have left some scratching their heads in confusion. One such change resulted in the destruction of a beloved Belleview landmark. Known by many as the “Belleview Christmas Tree”, local Girl Scouts would create ornaments that would be displayed yearly on the large evergreen at the intersection of CR 484 and Highway 441.

#2 – Belleview: The “Fish Games” Capital Of Marion County

Originally published online May 31, 2023. This was the initial look behind the curtain of Belleview’s eight internet cafés published by the Voice. Through a series of interviews, we discovered that Belleview was the only government in Marion County to allow these types of businesses to operate (that soon changed, as they were all ordered to close the following September).

In this article, it was learned that the “Fish Games” establishments of Belleview were extremely generous towards the city government. Not including the annual fees and business taxes, city officials reported over $100,000 in additional donations over the last three years, including $16,560 in 2021, $56,606 in 2022 and $32,000 at the time the article published in 2023 (another cool $13,600 was donated between the time this article published and August).

#1 – Curtain Closes On Plaza Lunch After 36 Years

Originally published online June 1, 2023. Belleview lost another landmark restaurant in 2023. After 36 years of the restaurant business, Dave Grundy and his wife Lora Grundy moved on with the next chapter of their lives. Their restaurant, Plaza Lunch, had been a favorite among Belleview locals from the time it first opened the doors in 1987. As of May 1 this year, the restaurant has been under new ownership as RJ’s Diner.

Dave Grundy first visited Belleview in the late 1980s and loved the small, hometown feel of the community. In an interview with the Voice, he took time to reflect on his time as a restaurant owner. “The restaurant business is very demanding and the work seems to be never done. I have had some amazing employees over the years. After all, without good help, you have no business,” he explained.

At Plaza Lunch, the secret to success was how they treated customers. “When you treat customers right, they will always come back,” said Grundy. “You have to listen to the customers and hear them, don’t just brush them off. After all, if it was not for customers, you would have no business.” For most of the years that Plaza Lunch was open, all customers were invited to a Christmas party, complete with a free meal and a visit from Santa Claus. “I say treat all customers and people great it will come back to you ten-fold.”

Now that the curtain has closed for good on Plaza Lunch, Dave plans on spending more time with those who matter the most. “I’m going to take more time and enjoy life with my wife Lora, my dog Paisley, and my family. I truly want to thank my customers for their loyalty and support over the years,” he said.

(Thoughts? Submit a letter to the editor here.)

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