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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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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 www.Horse-Therapy.org, www.facebook.com/TherapyHorses or call 352-226-9009.

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W - Alachua Economic Dev DSC 0453

ELLEN BOUKARI/Alachua County Today

Kevin Crowder of Redevelopment Management Associates (RMA) explains key points of his firm's preliminary market study and strategy for boosting economic activity in Alachua's downtown and historic district.

ALACHUA – According to an economic research firm retained by the City of Alachua, the lynchpin to boosting economic activity in Alachua’s downtown area comes down to five factors: recognizing what should be preserved, enhanced, promoted, invested in and capitalized upon.

Preliminary recommendations were offered by Redevelopment Management Associates (RMA) at a public workshop held Monday, June 13 in Alachua City Hall. RMA is the consulting firm retained by the City of Alachua to conduct a market study and economic development plan for the downtown area. An initial workshop was held in January to discuss the need to boost the downtown and how that could be accomplished.

Some of the issues raised at the January workshop included possible ways that traffic along U.S. 441 could be directed to the business district in downtown Alachua; the creation of adequate parking; better signage; how to maintain foot traffic on Sundays when some stores are closed; removing stop signs on Main Street; modifications to city codes to encourage shorter business startup times; and ways to help keep retail buildings from being rented out as office space. Additional issues and suggestions were submitted through the survey process as well.

Since that initial workshop, RMA sought public input through surveys of downtown business owners and property owners to gain insights into existing conditions and ways to improve the business climate throughout the city and downtown for inclusion in an economic development plan. The firm conducted additional market research and analysis to arrive at the recommendations.

The mid-afternoon meeting, which was held in the commission chambers, was attended by more than 50 individuals representing business and property owners in the downtown area as well as longtime residents interested in the future plans for the area.

RMA’s Director of Economic Development Kevin Crowder presented preliminary findings of the marketing study and a draft economic development plan to the Alachua City Commission.

Suggestions included branding downtown Alachua to give it an easily recognizable identity, attracting a business class hotel, attracting residential investment, enhancing the residential quality of life and responsiveness to businesses and investors.

Suggested opportunities included preservation of the area’s unique character, such as its authenticity of historical buildings and venues. Other recommendations included enhancing relationships with major businesses in the city, investing in recreation complexes and in the entrances to the city and providing incentives for targeted uses in the downtown area.

RMA offered a number of areas that could be invested in that would improve the downtown area’s competitiveness. These investments include a downtown coordinator position, a marketing and branding initiative, a façade improvement program, directional and wayfinding signage, street lighting, additional streetscape and landscape improvements.

Promoting downtown events was also a key finding of ways to bring the community to the downtown area through ways such as music, arts, storytelling, and historic awareness events.

After the conclusion of the presentation, city commissioners as well as some audience members offered their comments about the direction of the downtown and their ideas as well.

The next step in the process is for RMA to incorporate suggestions made Monday into the final market study and action plan, including strategies to accomplish the recommendations, for presentation at the July 11th scheduled commission meeting.

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ALACHUA COUNTY – The local branch of the NAACP, religious leaders from local black churches and concerned citizens expressed their support for Alachua County Superintendent of Schools Owen Roberts at a five-hour long meeting Tuesday night at Kirby-Smith Center in downtown Gainesville.

Despite the overwhelming support of approximately 35 speakers, the school board voted to accept the evaluation conducted earlier by board members and voted to accept Roberts’ resignation, which had been tendered earlier in the day.

Supporters became enraged by the Board's decision and threatened to take action at the ballot box. “Racism” was charged by audience members including the president of the local NAACP branch, Evelyn Foxx.

Poor teacher morale, student disciplinary issues associated with recent budget cuts and pressures associated with high-stakes standardized testing have been cited by critics, as well as charges of plagiarism in a self-published book. Supporters say Roberts was working to lower school dropout rates and reduce racial disparity.

Although Roberts was present at the meeting, when things became heated between audience and school board members, he left.

A severance package of 20 weeks pay and accrued leave will be paid to Roberts. The total severance package amounts to $133,000, according to the Assistant Superintendent of Finance, Alex Rella. The motion to accept the less-than-favorable evaluation of Roberts’ performance was made by April Griffin and seconded by Rob Hyatt and was unanimously approved.

The motion to accept Roberts’ resignation was made by Gunnar Paulson and seconded by April Griffin and received a 3-2 vote with Leanetta McNealy and Rob Hyatt dissenting.

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W - Shuffleboard6

LINDA HEWLETT/Special to Alachua County Today

First place winners Gabrun Onel (left) and Nick Sekora (far right) are congratulated by event organizer Tom Hewlett (center).

HIGH SPRINGS – The newly resurfaced High Springs Shuffleboard Court was put to good use last Thursday when the City's Recreation Director, Robert Basford, hosted the inaugural Shuffleboard Tournament.

“The court has not been in use in quite some time and many residents are surprised to realize it even exists,” said Linda Hewlett, event co-organizer.

The court had been in disrepair until the City recently approved $800 to resurface it. Two picnic tables are also part of the new recreation area behind City Hall.

In honor of the inaugural event, Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe provided barbecue, hamburgers, sides and drinks for the players and onlookers. “There were about 30 people there,” said Hewlett. “A good start to what we hope will eventually become a bigger event. Robert told us he wants to create teams to challenge other area teams. We would love that.”

Although the day was sunny, the group didn't convene until 6 p.m. to take advantage of cooler temperatures for the tournament. There were eight teams with two people comprising each team.

First place went to Gabrun Onel and Nick Sekora, each of whom was awarded mugs provided by Gainesville Harley-Davidson. Second place went to Ruhiyyih and Mitch Young, who received gift certificates for hair cuts at Talk of the Town Salon, Inc. in High Springs for their efforts.

Anyone interested in creating a team may contact High Springs Parks and Recreation Director Robert Basford at his office or through City Hall.

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BOB BROWN/Alachua County Today
Micanopy's Cholokka Boulevard offers a picturesque backdrop of moss-draped oak trees and historic buildings.

MICANOPY – Small and unassuming, but with a rich history and beautiful Spanish moss-draped live oaks, the Town of Micanopy is a Florida treasure.

The second-smallest community in the county is considered the oldest inland town in the state, claiming 1821 as its founding date.

Native American settlements predated any European or American communities by hundreds of years. A nearby important Seminole village accounted for both Micanopy’s initial American settlement and eventual name.

Moses Levy, the father of future Florida railroad magnate and U.S. Senator David Yulee, purchased thousands of acres that included the future site of Micanopy with the intent of establishing a refuge community for European Jews according to Micanopy resident Chris Monaco’s book, “Moses Levy of Florida: Jewish Utopian and Antebellum Reformer.”

A trading post was started primarily by Edward Wanton, an agent sent by Spanish land owner Don Fernando de la Maza Arredondo, which was eventually named after the local Seminole chief, whose title was “Micanopy,” which loosely translated as “head chief” in the native language.

In 1822, Levy and 23 Jewish settlers that had been gathered by Levy’s partner Frederick Warburg settled near Wanton’s post, completing construction of 13 houses by 1823. An additional 25 Jewish settlers arrived that year.

This initial settlement was ultimately doomed, however, by the outbreak of the Second Seminole War in 1835. Micanopy was on the very outskirts of Seminole territory, and the community was abandoned during the war while two forts were established nearby: Fort Defiance, which was likewise abandoned early in the war, followed by Fort Micanopy.

The area surrounding the Micanopy vicinity was a major theater in the war, with several battles taking place nearby. Most citizens sought refuge during the war further north in Alachua County at Newnansville near present-day Alachua.

After the war ended in 1843, Micanopy quickly became a thriving community once more. Along with Newnansville, it was the largest community in North Central Florida.

The Methodist Church established the East Florida Seminary there in 1852 (not to be confused with the East Florida State Seminary which later became part of the University of Florida), the first attempt by Methodists to establish a school in Florida, but it closed permanently with the outbreak of the Civil War. The original building’s cornerstone is kept at the Methodist’s Florida Southern College in Lakeland.

While the population of Gainesville began to drastically increase after the Civil War concluded and the City of High Springs quickly sprang into existence as the second largest community in the county in the late 1890s, Micanopy’s population has remained remarkably consistent for over 100 years, maintaining the size it reached at the turn of the 19th Century.

Today, Micanopy is a center for antique shopping along its primary street, Cholokka Boulevard. Numerous historic buildings are preserved with care, and the Micanopy Historical Society has one of the more extensive local history museums on display, open daily from 1 p.m. – 4 pm.

Micanopy remains a small but vibrant, living and breathing time capsule from Florida’s native and earliest American past.

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Q - EB SFHS Grad DSC 0288

ELLEN BOUKARI/Alachua County Today

Santa Fe High School graduated 261 seniors Saturday, June 11th at the high school on Raider Field.

ALACHUA – With the school year winding down and summer fast approaching, numerous high school graduations took place over the last week. Local high school ceremonies, complete with pomp and circumstance, were dotted across different locations this year due to renovations at the UF O’Connell Center, a popular venue for schools to hold their graduations.

Newberry High School held their commencement ceremony on June 9 at 7 p.m. at the high school’s Panther field. The 2016 class was made up of 135 graduates.

Hawthorne Middle/High School’s class was made up of 37 graduates and the graduation ceremony took the stage at the Phillips Center for Performing Arts at UF on June 11 at 9 a.m.

In Alachua, the Santa Fe High School (SFHS) Raiders football field was filled with family, friends and other loved ones to watch 261 Santa Fe High School graduates take the stage Saturday, June 11 at the football field at 8:30 am.

Elizabeth LeClear, SFHS principal, welcomed the crowd as well acknowledging the class as the only one to have received a medallion.

“Thank you for allowing me to have the opportunity to work with your most precious gift,” she began. “It has been a blessing. This is the end of my 30th year. I’m not quitting, but it’s the end of my 30th year, and there are not very many people that can say that the last four years were the best four years.”

Holding up a round medallion on a ribbon, “The medallion is for you,” she said. “You’re the only class that will have one because you’re my class.”

Cary Emerson, the student body president, addressed the crowd next. Through tears, she reminisced on the beginning of her years at SFHS and thanked those closest to her.

“I never dreamed that I would be standing here behind this podium, addressing you all this morning,” she said. “I’ve realized that I couldn’t reach my full potential unless I stepped out of my comfort zone. Speaking before you all today is definitely an example of that… Four years ago, I wouldn’t have necessarily considered this a privilege, however. Four years ago, I clung too tightly to my fears in the comfort of isolation.”

Then, she imparted tidbits of wisdom and advice to her fellow graduates.

“From the moment we arrive in this world, anyone and everyone has an opinion on what we should do and what we should become,” she said. “Many times, this vision that others have for us is not what we are truly meant to do. It is physically impossible to live out the vision that others have for our lives. You were created on purpose and with a purpose and you will find that purpose on the unchartered waters of your journey.”

Courtney Jones, the senior class president, spoke next and took a moment to congratulate her class on the hard work that it’s taken to make it to where they were sitting and encouraged them to keep dreaming big.

“The fact that we made it here definitely awards an accomplishment which is a testament of our perseverance and excellence,” she said. “All of us were destined for greatness – every single one of us – has the potential to put the small town of Alachua on the map – or even greater, to change the world.”

Dustin Durden, the salutatorian, gave comforting words and reminded his peers to not fear the future after completing this milestone.

“Parents, family members and friends, it is a great thing to feel to supported, and I know I do not speak for myself when I say that you all have been instrumental in my journey through high school,” he said. “Also let’s not forget about our wonderful teachers, they have taught us, guided us and prepared us for the future struggles of life.

“We face change a lot, in many different ways, and sometimes it can be a little bit frightening,” he told his classmates. “We often grow so accustomed to the way that life is in the present. When it finally changes, we might feel completely lost. The one thing that does not change in life is the fact that our life changes. It is important to remember, however, that we do not need to feel afraid or intimidated when it occurs and we do not have to see it as an end. Instead we can have hope, and look at it as a new beginning.”

Jacob Jenkins, SFHS’s valedictorian, took the podium next with a lighthearted and funny approach to his speech.

“If I would have gotten up to speak in front of thousands of people in ninth grade, I would have spontaneously combusted from sheer embarrassment,” he said. “Luckily for me, that is not the case four years later, but you may wish to keep a fire extinguisher in hand, just to be safe.”

He recalled a time when he had devoted hours to working on an assignment, only to realize that he had completed the wrong chapter by the end.

“On one fateful occasion, I was completing a round of diagonal categorization and the only way I knew how to tackle such a large and difficult assignment [was] by doing it all in one night,” he said. “After two and half hours of hard work, I had 14 out of 16 statements completed. In order to be certain that I had to do 16 in total, I went ahead and checked the assignment description on the class website. The good news was that I was correct in having to do 16 in total, but the bad news was, that I had been doing them all on the wrong chapter.”

“I just sat there in shock and then I came to my senses and had a nervous breakdown.” The crowd laughed in appreciation of his self-deprecating humor.

But he ended on a high note.

“Although this was, unquestionably, one of the worst experiences of my academic life, it did teach me an important lesson, and that was perseverance,” he said. “After that ordeal, I realized that I could work through any hardship, and so can all of you … Congratulations and best of luck to the class of 2016.”

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