Last updateThu, 28 Jul 2016 1pm

Local native Clemons running for Florida House


GAINESVILLE — Chuck Clemons has come a long way after growing up on a chicken farm in High Springs.

“One of our mottos is ‘We’re taking our campaign from the chicken house to the State House,’” he said.

Clemons announced his candidacy for the Florida House of Representatives, District 21 earlier this month.

Clemons serves as Vice President for Advancement and Communications at Santa Fe College, a position he has held since 2007.

Clemons, a Republican, will seek the seat currently held by Keith Perry, who is widely expected to run for the Florida Senate.

Clemons said he was raised in High Springs and Alachua, graduating from Santa Fe High School in 1975. His connection with Florida extends beyond his own life, as he said he is a fourth-generation Floridian.

“My family settled in Florida before it became a state,” he said. “I am proud to call District 21 home, and I am very excited about the opportunity to serve a region I love.”

District 21 contains the western half of Alachua County, including the cities of Alachua, Gainesville, High Springs, and Newberry, and all of Gilchrist and Dixie counties.

Clemons named two primary motivations for deciding to run for the Florida House.

“I’m a big education advocate,” he said. “As a Vice President at Santa Fe College, I’ve seen first hand how proper education can change lives for the better, and I want to advocate that at the state level.

“A second [point of emphasis] is protection of our natural resources. I learned to swim in Poe Springs. I know the fragility of our resources and the pressure 20 million people have on it.”

Clemons began his professional life as a certified financial consultant, working for more than 20 years with small businesses and retirees. He served on the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners from 1996 through 2000, including as chairman in 1999.

President George W. Bush appointed him as the State Director of the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development, an agency whose mission is to promote economic development and improve the quality of life in rural America. He served in that capacity from 2001 to 2007.

He has served as Past President of civic organizations such as Leadership Gainesville Alumni, Kiwanis Club of University City, the Kiwanis Club Foundation, and the Alpha Gamma Rho Education Foundation.

He is a co-founder and board member of Bikers on Parade for the U.S.A., which has raised over $500,000 for the American Red Cross and various veterans causes.

He and his wife, Jane, currently live in Newberry. They have four children and a six-year-old grandson.

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Biotech sector growing, AGTC occupies new building at Foundation Park


Special to Alachua County Today

Applied Genetic Technologies (AGTC) moved into its new combined corporate office and laboratory facility in Foundation Park located on U.S. Highway 441 in Alachua. The company previously occupied several buildings in Progress Corporate Park.

ALACHUA – Over 50 people attended the open house for the new building in Foundations Park housing biotech company AGTC.

Some of the notable faces at the event included Alachua Mayor Gib Coerper, Vice Mayor Ben Boukari Jr. and Assistant City Manager Adam Boukari.

Sue Washer, the President and CEO of AGTC, took the stage to express her gratitude to those in the community who helped make the new building a reality, including the construction company that worked swiftly to bring it to completion.

“We’re very happy to be in the building and also for the super hard work from everybody from Concept Companies,” she said. “They built this building to our specifications … It was just an amazing feat to get this all together.

“I just wanted to shout out to some many people in the community that helped make this happen,” she continued. “Phil Hawley – he was really the person that stepped up and said, ‘Hey, there’s a local company that needs more space. We want that company to stay here in this community,’ and he worked really hard with the University of Florida.”

The open house allowed guests the opportunity to tour the labs and ask questions about the cutting-edge gene therapy research the company is involved in.

Current research at AGTC is concentrated on the treatment of rare eye diseases. One such disease is called achromatopsia, an inherited condition that causes impaired vision, light sensitivity and color-blindness, according to the website for the American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus.

The disease currently only affects about 10,000 people in the U.S., according to AGTC Vice President and CMO Dr. Jeffrey Chulay.

“The types of diseases we’re dealing with -- is even with the best corrective lenses and glasses, these people still can’t see normally,” he explained.

Chulay said AGTC is involved in creating a functional copy of a gene to replace a gene that is mutated or abnormal in patients. “The function of genes is to provide the instructions to a cell to make a protein,” he said. “If the gene is mutated, or abnormal, then the instructions are wrong, and the cell will either make an abnormal protein, or it will not make any protein at all.”

AGTC also studies animals that have the same gene inconsistencies. One video featured on the company website shows a dog afflicted with achromatopsia running into walls while trying to navigate a maze. The video later shows the same dog, treated with gene therapy, making its way through the maze with ease.

“In some of the animal models that we’ve looked at, where we have mutation in the same gene in the animal that we have in people, we’ve been able to show that we can restore and improve the vision in the animals,” he said. “And that’s what we’re trying to do with people.”

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Biotech firm AGTC expands


KRISTINE ORREGO/Alachua County Today

L-R: Dirk Hunt, Technology Transfer Manager and Nitin Garg, Assistant Director, Upstream.

ALACHUA – A new 42,500 sq ft building for the biotech company Applied Genetic Technologies (AGTC) is in its final stages of completion.

Located in Foundations Park across the street from Progress Corporate Park on U.S. Highway 441, it is the first building for the company to merge its administrative offices with its labs under the same roof.

According to Chief Financial Officer Larry Bullock, the company was previously located in Progress Park.

He said their employees were scattered in four different buildings, including the EmiLiv Building, UF’s Center of Excellence for Regenerative Health Biotechnology (CERHB), RTI Surgical and the BDI Building.

He also said the new building is ideal for their ongoing growth, which is projected to increase over the next few years.

“Now we’re all under one roof, which makes it much more convenient for all of us to communicate,” Bullock said. “We’re currently at around 50 employees. Over the next few years, we anticipate that will grow to probably close to 75. We’ve expanded pretty significantly our lab facilities, so those are the sorts of things that we will continue to expand.”

Construction has been ongoing on the new building – situated alongside U.S. 441 heading into Alachua – since the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Foundation Park was held in May. The AGTC building is the first of several slated for construction in the park.

“The advantage of moving over to Foundation Park is that we are all centralized [now],” said Idania Sanchez, executive assistant to Sue Washer, the president and CEO of AGTC. “We’re all together – the offices, plus the labs.”

Sanchez also said AGTC, the only current tenant of the building, might lease out some space for another company.

“We’re hoping that we can lease other companies as well, but we’re really going very quickly, so we might take some additional space,” she said.

AGTC has ongoing programs to research, combat and focus on developing groundbreaking healthcare solutions to patients with rare diseases, according to their website.

Bullock said some of this ongoing research includes the development of gene therapy products. Their main area of interest currently is ocular diseases.

“We’re looking at genetic causes of blindness or genetic causes of severe visual impairments,” he said.

AGTC will host an open house at the new facility at 14193 N.W. 119th Terrace in Alachua at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 18.

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Railroad club brings Florida history to life

Train - IMG 6112A

RAINA BARNETT/Alachua County Today

Members of the North Central Florida Railroad Club spend countless hours preparing railroad dioramas, attending to the smallest of details to ensure authenticity.

ALACHUA – The rich local history of farming and travel by trains is on display at the Welcome Center on Main Street in Alachua.

The most recent project of The North Central Florida Model Railroad Club depicts the 1930s to 1940s time period in Florida, complete with train tracks, miniature farms, old houses and family-owned businesses.

Dot Evans, an associate of the Alachua County Chamber of Commerce, said she enjoys the display.

“The detail that goes into it is amazing, like the little oranges,” Evans said.

Jim Yakubsin, a member of the club, said these projects can take up to a year.

“There’s a lot of different things we try to put in there,” Yakubsin said. “We’ve got about 27 guys now. They’ve all got their interests and their own techniques, and we all love model railroading.”

The club is busy preparing other, more specific projects for the future, namely a diorama of the city of Alachua itself.

“I did a lot of research in downtown Alachua, talked to a lot of people who lived here since they were kids,” Yakubsin said.

Trains have been an integral part of Alachua’s history.

“Parents used to put their kids on the train for a day and they would just head out to the ocean and come back,” Yakubsin said.

Vada Horner, an Alachua County school teacher, has lived in Alachua for decades, and remembers how influential trains once were.

“Ms. Horner has taught for years,” Yakubsin said. “She’s taught all my children, and was interested in bringing some kids up here like a field trip so we could talk about the trains and the history.”

The railroad club is more than a way to educate the public; it can bring back memories for older generations.

“I’ve been here since 1971; I was a policeman, I was a fireman, I did a lot of things with the city, I’ve been very involved,” Yakubsin said. “When I retired from the sheriff’s office and the military, I had some spare time so I got together with a couple guys and said, ‘Let’s go see what we can do,’ so we started this.”

Pictures from the past help the club reconstruct much of the local businesses and architecture.

The club primarily recruits new members through a hobby shop in Gainesville, HobbyTown.

“We put up flyers there, and believe it or not, there’s a lot of people out there who like this stuff but never know about it,” Yakubsin said.

The club tries to bring together the community through public events like expos.

“About three months ago we did our first expo down on Archer Road down by Shriners, and we had about 200 to 300 people come out,” Yakubsin said. “We had only about 15 vendors. All of these conventions are in Orlando or Jacksonville, so when you get it going in a small community it’s really great.”

Ultimately, the club hopes to get the community interested in the local history of both the City and County of Alachua.

“We want to have open houses,” Yakubsin said. “Our main goal is to have people come here, so we can educate them on the history of the railroad. We can do a lot of different things for the kids.”

The club regularly meets every Thursday morning at the Tower Road Branch Library in Gainesville.

For more detailed information, Yakubsin encourages inquiries be made either through the website,, or by phone, 352-222-8837.

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County facing growing requests for fire funding

ALACHUA COUNTY – Several changes may soon be coming to the way the county funds rural fire protection services.

The Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) is expected to convene a joint meeting with the Town of LaCrosse on March 1. Although many issues may be up for discussion, two will certainly be the county's handling of its contract for fire services with Melrose and recent requests for additional fire services funding from Windsor, Cross Creek and Newberry.

At their last joint meeting in March 2015, the only topic on LaCrosse's agenda was the need for additional funding for the town's fire department due to increased calls in nearby unincorporated portions of the county.

After weeks of discussions, the BOCC suggested LaCrosse either increase its property taxes or eliminate its fire department. The latter option would result in reliance on the service of county fire departments located in the cities of Alachua, which is 10-15 minutes away, and Waldo, which is 30 minutes away, for the nearly 90 acres of properties in LaCrosse's district.

Ultimately, LaCrosse chose to increase taxes to keep the fire station and reduce the cost of property owners' insurance. Insurance companies can double or sometimes triple property owners' rates if their property is located farther than five miles from the closest fire department.

With what now appears to be a county increase in funding for Melrose, Windsor is asking for additional funding with several smaller cities cuing up behind them to ask for the same.

Bill Northcutt, Alachua County Fire Services Chief, says he expects to be out of town when the joint BOCC/LaCrosse meeting takes place, but explained that the cost to the county for Melrose did not increase the county's budget, despite reports to the contrary.

“The county had one paid employee located at the Melrose Fire Department for 40 hours a week. We paid the employee's salary, etc., plus provided them $55,000. Now we are asking Melrose to put two full-time employees of their own out there at a total cost of $234,767. We are paying them the same total amount this year, although we are no longer paying our staff to be one of the people out there,” said Northcutt.

The rates that the smaller cities are currently being paid was determined by previous Chief Will May. “I don't think Chief May considered the total cost of the individual departments in any financial agreements,” said Northcutt. “The philosophy that Chief May used was based on his calculation of what a department with two people would cost.”

Since that time, the population has grown in the rural areas of Alachua County. According to Northcutt, there hasn't been a review since fiscal year 2010.

“There is not just one global philosophy as to how this [funding] should work,” he said. The BOCC has several ways they can look at how to fund smaller community fire departments.

One way is by the value of the properties each department protects. Another by how much each community generates under the Municipal Service Taxing Unit. A third by looking at the number of responses each department attends. Then whether there are two people on duty or four may also be considered.

The final item the BOCC has to consider is how to determine the funding source, the item Northcutt says the BOCC will struggle with the most.

All interested parties are expected to attend the BOCC meeting scheduled for 10 a.m., March 1, for discussion and potential decision on a uniform philosophy for funding the smaller fire partners in Alachua County.

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