Last updateThu, 13 Oct 2016 9pm


Alachua's "Largest Small Town Fireworks Display in America"

Alachua 4th DSC 0701ELLEN BOUKARI/Alachua County Today

A birdseye view as thousands of spectators listen to a performancy by Natalie Nicole Green leading up to the annual fireworks display.

ALACHUA - Communities throughout Alachua County celebrated the 4th of July, and thousands of people joined in the festivities. Alachua, Gainesville, Micanopy and Waldo all had public events, some offering up fireworks displays in addition to parades, activities and refreshments.

In Alachua, an estimated crowd of 40,000 residents and visitors descended on Alachua’s Hal Brady Recreation Complex Monday and surrounding viewing areas to celebrate the 4th of July.

Dubbed the “largest small-town fireworks display in America,” Alachua’s 17th Annual July 4th celebration attracted folks from near and far. Starting at 3 p.m. on Monday, the recreation center became the site of an all-day party as the crowds grew in anticipation of the explosive show

For those who couldn’t make their way down to the Hal Brady Recreation Complex, the epicenter of the 4th of July show and festivities, the roadside and parking lots throughout the city proved more than adequate for catching the grand display. As the city’s population more than quadrupled for the night, it was clear that the fireworks buzz had garnered significant attention, and an annual following from surrounding areas.

The event was emceed by Alachua City Commissioner Ben Boukari, Jr. who welcomed everyone to the “Largest Small-Town Fireworks Display in America.” Entertainment included live music and activities for children such as bounce houses, waterslides, rock climbing and more – and all free. The Alachua spray park was a popular spot as children splashed in the refreshing water. A variety of vendors were set up offering all types of carnival type fare from BBQ to hotdogs and hamburgers to funnel cakes and refreshing slushies and ice cream cones.

The annual event offers opportunities for many local charities, clubs and non-for-profits to raise funds for their programs, and dozens of vendors and concessionaires were at the event offering food, crafts and other items to visitors.

Out by the stage, bands entertained the ever-growing crowd, who were spread out on blankets and seated in lawn chairs on the expansive soccer fields. Alachua Mayor Gib Coerper welcomed Alachua residents and visitors alike.

Little Mike and the Tornadoes took to the stage first followed by the Aunt Jackie Band.

Then the event headliner Natalie Nicole Green worked her way around the stage warming up the crowd gathered around the stage, singing a variety of crowd favorites.

As the sunlight began to fade Antoinette Hunt took the microphone to offer a medley of patriotic tunes followed by Green who performed the National Anthem.

As anticipation builds, the 50 by 30 foot American flag, rolled up and suspended 50 feet in the air to the right of the stage, is unfurled. Powerful spotlights catch the stars and stripes billowing in a gentle breeze.

Fireworks began under the darkened sky and for 30 minutes it was a masterful display of light and sound, only surpassed by the grand finale, which by all accounts was the most powerful fireworks show the city has seen.

The annual event is coordinated by the Alachua 4th of July committee, which is made up of City of Alachua staff, elected officials and community partners. “The event was a tremendous success,” said Assistant City Manager Adam Boukari. “Overall the day went smoothly and families were able to enjoy a beautiful day celebrating the 4th. Of course, the fireworks were spectacular and the best around.”

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Proposed SunTrail could connect trails throughout county

Newberry-Mike New 2 IMG 2387

C.M. Walker/Alachua County Today

Newberry City Manager Mike New addresses the joint county-city meeting held at Newberry City Hall.

NEWBERRY – A resolution supporting Alachua County's priority project list for SUNTrail funding for projects impacting the City of Newberry was approved at a joint city/county meeting June 13.

The Shared Use Non-Motorized Trail (SUNTrail) program was approved by the Florida Legislature in 2015. The program, which is overseen by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), provides for funding of trails through Florida and is paid for through the re-distribution of automobile tag sales.

The legislature allocated $25 million annually to the program, which is slated to begin during the 2016/2017 fiscal year.

Chris Dawson, Alachua County Senior Transportation Planner, presented a draft list of priorities for the Newberry City Commission to review. Programs presented in the resolution included projects in priority order, three of which would involve the City of Newberry, and are expected to run from 2017 – 2022, if approved by the State.

Priority 1: Gainesville to Newberry Trail – Northwest 43rd Street to Newberry Lane (5.9 miles)

According to the report, “This section of trail is proposed to run within the State Road 26 right-of-way. As envisioned, the trail would be located on the north side of the roadway at the edge of the right-of-way…This section may be the easiest of the sections to implement as no right-of-way needs to be acquired.”

The cost to design this project is estimated to be $356,250. Construction would begin in 2019 and is anticipated to cost $2.375 million with another $240,000 for construction engineering and inspection.

Priority 2: Hawthorne to Palatka Trail – Grade-separated Crossing at U.S. Hwy. 301

This project was previously approved and funded for construction in 2016, and will bring riders of the Gainesville – Hawthorne Trail from the current trailhead through downtown Hawthorne to the U.S. Hwy. 301 – State Road 20 intersection. There is no bicycle or pedestrian phase at this intersection, raising safety concerns. This project would provide for a grade-separated 12-ft.-wide crossing of U.S. Hwy. 301 south of the existing State Road 20 bridge. The bridge would also allow children living in subdivisions east of U.S. Hwy. 301 along State Road 20 to walk or bike to the schools on the west side of U.S. Hwy. 301.”

The cost to design is estimated to be $243,000. Construction would begin in 2020 and is anticipated to cost $1.620 million with an additional $240,000 for construction engineering and inspection.

Priority 3: Nature Coast Trail Extension – Newberry Rail Exchange to County Line (2.75 miles)

This section has previously been acquired by the State from Trenton to the Alachua County Line and this project proposes acquisition of the portion of the rail corridor from the County Line into the rail exchange in Newberry, either through fee simple acquisition or utilizing the rail-banking provisions of the federal statute. Additionally, the project would include construction of a 12-ft.-wide asphalt trail. This corridor would connect to other regional trails that the County is working on, including the Hawthorne-to-Newberry Rail Trail.”

Obtaining rights-of-way is expected to cost $1 million. Design is estimated to be $165,000, and construction would begin in 2022, anticipated at $1.1 million. Construction engineering and inspection is estimated at $110,000.

Priority 4: Archer to Bronson Trail – U.S. 27/41 to Levy County (2.8 miles)

“This project is essentially an extension of the Archer Braid Trail from its current terminus at the Archer water tower along State Road 24 to the County Line. The project…would be a 10 – 12 ft. wide multi-use path within the existing State Road 24 right-of-way. This project will need to…identify a connection from the water tower back to State Road 24.”

Design is estimated at $170,500. Construction beginning in 2022 and is expected to be $1.15 million. Construction engineering and inspection is estimated at $114,250.

Priority 5: Newberry to Gainesville Trail – Northwest 260th Street to Newberry Lane (1.6 miles)

“This project would connect the Nature Coast Trail to the Newberry to Gainesville Trail through downtown along the State Road 26 corridor. The exact alignment of the corridor will require some planning and coordination. FDOT is currently undertaking a Planning, Development and Environmental (PD&E) study for State Road 26 through downtown Newberry…This section of the trail would be a mix of in-street and off-street facilities. As proposed, project timing will be dependent upon the implementation of improvements to the State Road 26 corridor.”

Project design is estimated to be $105,000 and construction $700,000, while construction engineering and inspection would be $70,000.

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Advisory Board, residents claim parks and recreation underfunded

HIGH SPRINGS – High Springs residents, some with children in tow, attended a recent city commission meeting voicing concerns about the need for additional funding for the City's Parks and Recreation Department budget.

“The Parks and Recreation Advisory Board began last November to look at the maintenance and staffing needs for our city,” said Ross Ambrose, the Board’s chair. “We also were tasked with becoming the Tree Board last year.”

Listing issues of concern, Ambrose also provided a five-year vision plan to address the items of most concern. Ambrose then followed up with suggestions from the Tree Board.

Noting that some of the equipment, restrooms and fields at city parks could not be adequately maintained by one person, specifically noting the Civic Center playground – which has been closed for four months – Ambrose said, “The budget should be a reflection of community priorities and a vision of those leading the city.”

Ambrose said, “The City used to have two full-time people in the Parks and Recreation Department.” Now the City has one person to take care of all six parks, which he listed as the Civic Center, Sports Complex, Memorial, Walter Howard, Catherine L. Taylor and James Paul Parks.

He noted that the Advisory Board realized that other priorities had to be addressed in previous fiscal years to take care of regulatory requirements. Now the Advisory Board wants to make commissioners aware of needs that have gone unmet due to previous budget constraints and the resulting deterioration of some of the recreation facilities during the past few years.

Pointing to the City's grant efforts to obtain new playground equipment, Ambrose stated that the City must also provide for maintenance of that equipment once it has been purchased.

One item that received additional inquiry and discussion was Ambrose's comment that staff had to turn down requests to use some facilities because there was no money in his budget to operate the lights.

“I have to watch my utility budget very carefully,” said Basford. “Turning on the lights uses more electricity than running them.” He told commissioners he had to limit the length of use of the fields during the winter months due to his limited utility budget.

Referring to recreation-related items in need of repair, Ambrose said, “There is no inventory…because Robert doesn't have time to sit down and make a list.”

Ambrose noted further that there are policies that need to be addressed that could put the City in a position of liability. “Robert has identified such items as transporting children to other facilities as one of many items that there is no policy in place to address,” he said. “The City has been lucky so far that nothing has happened because of the lack of policies.”

Another item brought to the commission's attention was that in every economic development workshop the City has had over the years, “good recreational opportunities” is listed as one of the items comprising a good quality of life, one of the stepping stones to attracting families to the community.

Several audience members addressed the commission, some of whom were coaches who have subsidized equipment purchases for their teams due to lack of budgeted funds to provide for or replace defective equipment.

Commissioner Sue Weller and Mayor Byran Williams both thanked Ambrose and the citizens who had spoken and said they would take the suggestions made during the meeting into their budget workshops, the first of which begins July 12.

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CRA owed nearly $200,000 by City of High Springs

HIGH SPRINGS – A review of the High Springs Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) audits revealed that the City owes the CRA almost $200,000.

As part of the High Springs CRA request for an extension, several items were submitted to the Alachua County Economic Development Coordinator, Edgar Campa-Palafox, including the CRA's financial audits for previous years.

It was determined that the City inadvertently neglected to put in matching funds into the CRA account from 2002 to 2006. During those four years, the amount that should have been paid into the CRA fund from the City's coffers amounts to more than $199,000, according to CRA Director Amanda Rodriguez.

Normally, both the County and City contribute tax revenues paid by property owners within the district to fund the CRA.

“It [the payment] was apparently overlooked,” said Rodriguez. “We have been unable to locate any documentation that took place during those four years to explain the omission any other way.”

“The City came to us after realizing the problem and brought with them a 10-year payback plan,” explained Campa-Palafox. “The County attorney said the cleanest way to resolve the issue is for the City to make payment in full to the City's CRA fund prior to the County signing an interlocal agreement to extend the CRA. Since that would put a burden on the City to do that, I suggested a five-year payback period as a compromise. Now it's up to the County Commission to decide what they want to do.”

The item will be reviewed at the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) meeting at 1:30 p.m., Tuesday, July 5.

If the CRA is extended, the County will commit to contributing to the fund at the same millage rate as the City.

Rodriguez also emphasized that the BOCC has the final word on how this will all work out, but Campa-Palafox's proposed resolution of the problem appears to be what the City is hoping will be acceptable.

The High Springs CRA, which is scheduled to sunset in December of this year, is requesting an extension for an additional 15 years with the opportunity to reevaluate their progress and possibly continue for another 15 years.

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Miniature Therapy Horses Comfort Orlando Families

Magic Orlando 2

DEBBIE GARCIA-BENGOCHEA/Special to Alachua County Today
Therapy horses Magic and Catherine traveled to Orlando at the request of shooting victims' families.

HIGH SPRINGS – Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses were invited to Orlando by a representative for several of the families who had lost loved ones in the June 12 shooting at Pulse nightclub.

Therapy horses Catherine and Magic, along with their caretakers, Debbie and Jorge Garcia-Bengochea, visited with individual family members, first responders and volunteers on Wednesday and Thursday following the incident. The couple and their horses returned home each night, so accommodations were not an issue. Volunteers and the American Red Cross provided water and other needed items for the horses each day.

Magic traveled to Orlando both days while Catherine made the trip once. Both visited the main memorial at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, the place where President Obama spoke last week, and were greeted by dozens of people who were there to mourn the loss of friends and relatives or show support to the families of the 49 people slain by the gunman, Omar Mateen.

“We visited privately with the families of those slain,” said Debbie Garcia-Bengochea. “We never allow photos of those meetings to be published.” But other public appearances, like the visit to the memorial site, are allowed, she said.

“We are there to help support grieving family members and first responders...not for publicity,” she said.

Catherine was named in honor of Catherine Hubbard who was lost in the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy. Catherine has visited Sandy Hook/Newtown, Connecticut several times.

Magic is known as the Little Hero Horse. He was named by TIME Magazine as one of “History's Ten Most Courageous Animals.” AARP named him the “Most Heroic Pet in America,” and he was named “A Reader's Digest/Americantowns Power of One Hero.”

Magic is also a Deputy with the Alachua County Sheriff's Office and will soon be featured in an upcoming book by National Geographic Kids called “The Book of Heroes.”

The organization has been requested by tragedy-stricken towns all over the United States to help survivors heal after experiencing loss of life or serious injuries. The horses also have been trained to be around hospital equipment and often visit children’s hospitals to provide love and therapy to those in need.

For more information about Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit charity, readers can visit, or call 352-226-9009.

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