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W_Project_Legacy_RCThe City of Alachua celebrated the $1.2 million acquisition of 105 acres of land, which adjoins the Hal Brady Recreation Complex.  Participating in the celebratory ribbon cutting were L-R: G.B. Wilson, Susanne Wilson Bullard, Craig Harris, Traci Cain, Shirley Brown, Adam Boukari, Gib Coerper, Paula DeLaney, Justin Revuelta, Gary Hardacre, Susan Baird, Ben Boukari, Jr., Orien Hills, Hal Brady and Lee Pinkoson.

 ALACHUA – On May 17, city and county officials, local dignitaries, business owners and residents gathered amidst rolling hills at the site of what has become known as Project Legacy. The group came together to commemorate the city’s acquisition of 105 acres of land to expand the Hal Brady Recreation Complex with a ribbon cutting ceremony.

The $1.2 million purchase, a centerpiece of the city’s Project Legacy expansion project, will supplement the original 25 acres that made up the recreation center on Peggy Road/County Road 2054.

Alachua City Manager Traci Cain said the purchase means a positive change in the lives of Alachua residents.

“I think it will improve the quality of live for people who continue to call Alachua home,” Cain said.  “The youth and adults of Alachua will be able to use this facility together as families.”

Assistant to the City Manager Adam Boukari said plans are in place to construct three multi-purpose sports fields on the land, which will be used to host soccer, lacrosse and football competitions, among others.

“Our hope is that these facilities will allow us to host tournaments, which in turn will attract business from out of town to our hotels and restaurants and generally increase tourism business in Alachua overall,” Boukari said.

Cain said the three multi-purpose fields are the only concrete plans in place for the new land, and said she believes the land offers plenty of room for development.

“At this point, the three fields are the only sure thing,” Cain said.  “Future staff will decide what will be constructed.”

The City of Alachua began the acquisition campaign nearly two years ago and acquired the property in December 2011with a combination of funding totaling approximately $1.2 million. During his remarks at the ceremony, Boukari told the crowd of about 100 that several years ago the land had been purchased for over $4 million by Craig Harris, a land developer from Kissimmee, Fla., who then sold it to the City of Alachua for the much reduced price of $1.2 million.

Harris, who was honored with a standing ovation at the ceremony, had planned to develop over 200 houses on the land, but opted instead to sell the acreage for a decreased price as an act of philanthropy.

The land, which had already been used by the city to provide parking for annual 4th of July celebrations and other larger events, was purchased using $500,000 from the Wild Spaces, Public Places funds, $500,000 from the Tourist Development Tax funds and approximately $200,000 from privately donated funds

Mayor Gib Coerper provided attendees with a history of the project and the land and explained its importance to the community’s quality of life.

Alachua County Board of County Commission Chair Paula DeLaney spoke on behalf of the County Commission and offered her insight into Alachua’s rich recreation history. Coerper, along with his fellow City Commissioners, presented DeLaney and members of the County Commission with a plaque of appreciation for partnering with Alachua on the project.

“We were so thrilled with the great turnout and show of support from our community,” said City Manager Traci Cain. “This day has been a long time coming and it was only made possible by the efforts of countless individuals. Alachua is deeply appreciative of the many people who made Project Legacy a reality.”  Recognized during the ceremony were donors including individuals, businesses and organizations.  Also recognized were members of the “Project Legacy Team” who worked on various aspects of the project. The ceremony culminated with the cutting of the ribbon signifying the new ownership of the property and the future it holds for the community.

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W_-_Watermelon_IMG_2005_copyW-Watermelon_contestants_1956_copyPhoto 1: Young contestants get their fill of juicy watermelon during Saturday’s watermelon eating contest.; Photo 2: The traditional hog calling contest brought together former and currently reigning watermelon queens as well as hopefuls at the 67th Annual Watermelon Festival.

Melon eating and beauty pageants highlight festivities

NEWBERRY – Ocala resident Mannie Martin, 7, stood at the end of a brown tarp. He bent back and then forward. He spit out a small black seed and sent it flying down the tarp.

“I concentrated on my speed and how far it needed to go,” he said.

Mannie, who won the seed-spitting contest and watermelon rolling contest for his age group, was just one of the winners at the 67th Annual Newberry Watermelon Festival on Saturday.

The annual festival raises money for local schools and brings in hundreds of festival-goers every year. Last year, the festival raised $5,000 for local schools, according to the festival’s publicity coordinator Kathi Thomas.

With 600 watermelons donated for this year’s event, participants had plenty of opportunities to express their love for the juicy fruit.

Wedges of free watermelon were sliced on the spot and given out. The melon slices quickly disappeared almost as soon as they were placed on the table, as people eagerly sampled the cool, sweet fruit.

“We love watermelon, and it’s in the neighborhood, so we thought we’d check it out,” Newberry resident Alan Dufner said.

The festivities began with the annual parade at 9 a.m. in downtown Newberry. Winners of this year’s beauty pageants sat in the beds of trucks or on top of cars, handing out candy to those lining the streets.

Lake City resident Laney Grinstead, the queen for the 5 to 6-year-old age group, sat in the backseat of a blue convertible with a lime green blanket. She slept with the blanket every night, the 5-year-old said.

Another watermelon queen had another charm for good luck.  The 1-year-old queen, Brinley Othus, of Lake Butler, is the daughter of former watermelon queen Melinda Othus.

Melinda Othus said that she did the watermelon beauty pageants since she was Brinley’s age. “It’s kind of in the genes,” she said.

After the parade, the festival continued at Oak View Middle School, where participants could check out over 40 vendors, play carnival-style games or participate in watermelon-themed games.

Gainesville resident Ashley Bolin took a break from working with The Pampered Chef to participate in the hog-calling contest. She stood at the end of the stage and waited her turn as the contestants squealed “Soo-eee!” or “Here, Piggy, Piggy.”

Bolin had a slightly different strategy and instead held her hand up to her ear in the shape of a phone. Then she imitated a phone call with a pig. Her creative twist on the hog-calling contest was a favorite with the audience and led her to win the adult section of the contest.

After the contest and the silent auction for watermelon-themed items came the crowning of this year’s Watermelon Queen. The former queen, Jenna Garrett, held back tears as she took the stage one last time. The six contestants then entered the spotlight. They stood anxiously as the preliminary awards, such as the congeniality award and the photogenic award were given out.

Katie Wilkerson of Trenton, 20, was announced as the winner. She held back tears as she posed for pictures. Wilkerson was participating in the contest for the second time and said she had prepared for the pageant for a month in advance.

This year’s festival ended at 6:30 p.m., but the “slice of tradition” created by the festival and the tasty summertime fruit will continue.

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Weller, Jamison express reservations about a city-operated dispatch

HIGH SPRINGS – Despite reservations from several High Springs police officers and city commissioners, the High Springs City Commission decided on Tuesday to go forward with bringing back emergency dispatch services to the city.  The change would take effect after the current contract with the county expires, barring any compromises made regarding required changes to city street names and cost.  Emergency dispatch services are currently handled through the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office (ASO) Combined Communications Center (CCC).

During the special meeting, the decision was split 3 to 2, with Commissioners Sue Weller and Scott Jamison voting against the measure.

“Do I believe the dispatch back in our control is good? Yes, I do,” Jamison said. “But I’m not convinced we can adequately prepare for it, technologically, staff it and assume control or take on the added financial obligations that come with it.”

Bringing the dispatch back to the City of High Springs has been a contentious issue with proponents of a city-operated dispatch saying it would allow for autonomy, local knowledge and control of tax dollars. Commissioner Linda Gestrin warned of a “perfect storm” of events occurring in 2015, which would consist of a $15 million Next Generation Radio Communication system being installed at the Alachua County Combined Communication Center.

Jamison disputed Gestrin’s warning, saying there will be no bill arriving in 2015 for an updated communications system. After talking to Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell, he learned that the new radio system will be operating as early as September 2012, that cities within Alachua County have already been paying for the system, and will continue to make payments until 2020.

If the dispatch returns to High Springs, Jamison believes there is no way at this time to know the exact costs the city will incur because of varying employment costs, such as health insurance.

“This will be their sewer system,” Jamison said, referring to commissioners in favor of the city-run dispatch center and comparing it to the city’s centralized sewer system which has generated controversy within the commission and in certain areas of the community.

The ASO updated all of the High Springs technology and radio systems when the CCC took over the city’s dispatching duties. All of that technology will go away when High Springs moves back to a local system. The ability to stay up-to-date on technology, Jamison said, is part of his concerns. He also expressed reservations about not knowing how many dispatchers will be required, what kind of training they will need and what equipment the city will need to buy.

Weller said the CCC provides the city with $164,000 in savings each year. She estimates that by the time High Springs reaches a population over 6,000, the CCC will have saved the City over $600,000 compared to what it would have cost to bring the dispatch back.

“I think officer safety is paramount,” Weller said. “Our own officers have indicated that they would rather us stay with the CCC.”

During the Tuesday, May 15, workshop, two officers expressed concerns about safety. Sergeant Antoine Sheppard said the majority of police officers wanted the dispatch to stay with the CCC. The connection with the CCC adds benefits that protect civilians and officers, such as automatic back-up by ASO officers and the address of the caller.

Prior to the city switching to the CCC, High Springs relied on the caller to give his or her address. If the call was disconnected or the location unknown to the caller, the police department would have to track down the location before it could send police officers. In the past, this has taken up to 45 minutes, Sheppard said. With the CCC, the address is sent automatically with the call.

Weller said the street names could be changed to railroad or spring names. For people who identify High Springs as a railroad town or a gateway to the springs, this method could provide a “home-town” feel.

Vice-Mayor Bob Barnas said his concerns are with the CCC about the tiered caller system and the ambiguous costs.

“We have the officers and the community’s safety in mind,” Gestrin said. This is our opportunity to rebuild and make it the best it can be, she added.

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ALACHUA – During the City of Alachua May 21 commission meeting, Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) officials provided commissioners a cursory review of possible improvements to the Interstate interchange at U.S. Highway 441.

Not only did the FDOT official reference the U.S. 441 interchange, but also a possible future interchange at Peggy Road/County Road 2054.

The brief presentation Monday was the precursor for a public meeting slated for May 31 at Alachua City Hall.

FDOT District Two Public Information Director Gina Busscher said the agency is looking to the public for feedback specifically on a proposed new southbound I-75 access ramp that would eliminate a required left turn for motorists traveling toward Gainesville.

During the May 21 presentation, the FDOT official said the agency would also take feedback on the possible future interchange at Peggy Road.  He said funding for the improvements at U.S. 441 have already been set aside in future budget years.  The total cost was close to $30 million for that project.

The public workshop is being held in the City of Alachua commission chambers on Thursday, May 31at 4:30 p.m.

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HAWTHORNE – Moving the fire department back to the city of Hawthorne was the focus of Tuesday’s joint meeting between county and city commissioners.

An Alachua County Fire Rescue station in Grove Park is currently serving the city, but Hawthorne commissioners proposed that the station be moved back to the original location in Hawthorne. No motion was made at the meeting, but county commissioners directed county staff to provide the city with an update within 90 days.

The conversation between Alachua County Fire Rescue and the City of Hawthorne is complicated, at best.

The Alachua County Fire Rescue station was asked to relocate after the City of Hawthorne established its own fire department in the fall of 2007. The city run fire department came about due in part to a dispute about the amount of money Hawthorne owed the county for fire services. The transition also included moving an ambulance to Grove Park.

Facing financial problems, Hawthorne commissioners were forced to cut both the city’s fire and police departments, leaving the city with an abandoned fire station.

Now, city commissioners want to move the station from Grove Park, and closer to the center of the community.

Hawthorne Mayor Matthew Surrency told commissioners that most of the calls to the Grove Park station either originated in Hawthorne or rescue workers had to pass through Hawthorne to respond.

County Commissioner Mike Byerly swiftly expressed support for the discussion, saying that he believed the current station was not at an optimal location. To move forward, the city would need to take a leadership role in paying for refurbishing the abandoned fire station, he said.

The mayor added that a new roof would be completed within 30 days.

County Commissioner Susan Baird noted that while the numbers show more incidents in Hawthorne, the current location has more coverage geographically than the proposed Hawthorne location.

Former Hawthorne mayor John Martin said county commissioners should not punish the city for the government’s decision.

“Hawthorne has been on probation long enough,” Martin said.

A fire station is vital to a community not only in terms of service, but also in community spirit, he said.

Byerly responded by saying that moving the fire station was no small task. The past may even call for legal insurances so that history doesn’t repeat itself.

County commissioner Paula Delaney said the historical tension between the city and county fire services was water under the bridge.

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ALACHUA – The Alachua City Commission is paving the way to allow the sale of liquor on Sundays, following in the footsteps of the City of Gainesville and Alachua County, both of which have repealed so-called “blue laws” in the last several months.

During the May 21 meeting, commissioners gave preliminary approval to an ordinance which, if approved on its second reading, would extend the legal sale hours of alcohol in Alachua.

Ordinance 12-19, scheduled for a second and final reading before the city commission on June 25, would extend the legal hours of alcohol sales on Sunday to 7 a.m.-11 p.m., from the current hours of 1 p.m.-11 p.m.

The ordinance, which was initially approved by a unanimous vote of the city commission, would also extend the legal sale of packaged alcohol by bars, clubs and restaurants to 7 a.m. - 11 p.m. on all days of the week, from the current week-long limit of 1 p.m.-11p.m.

The ordinance also contains a provision specifying that if New Year’s Eve falls on a Sunday, alcohol sales would be permitted from 7 a.m. - 2 a.m.

On-premise sale hours of alcohol would remain unchanged Monday through Saturday, with the proposed ordinance still allowing those sales from 7 a.m.-2 a.m.  On-premise sales on Sunday would be allowed from 7 a.m. – 11 p.m.

G.B. Wilson, compliance and risk management director for the City of Alachua, prepared the ordinance and presented it before the commission.  He said moving the legal opening hours for alcohol sales would not only benefit Alachua businesses, but would also eliminate confusion about current laws.

“Moving the time up to 7 a.m. across the board makes it easy to remember when places are allowed to be open, for businesses and for law enforcement,” Wilson said.

Wilson said this ordinance was influenced in part by recent legislation by the City of Gainesville and by the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners.

On Dec. 15, 2011, the City of Gainesville passed an ordinance allowing on-premise alcohol sales from 7 a.m. - 2 a.m. every day of the week.

Similarly, on Jan. 24, the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners passed an ordinance allowing liquor sales from 7 a.m. - 11 p.m. throughout the week, while extending the hours of sale for malt beverages and unfortified wine to 7 a.m. - 2 a.m.

Alan Fishman, the owner of Spindrifter Lounge in Alachua, said the earlier sale times will help his business slightly, but that extending the hours until 2 a.m. on Sunday would be even more beneficial.

“I don’t know how much more I could bring in with three extra hours on Sunday, but every little bit helps,” Fishman said.  “If I could stay open until 2 a.m. [on Sunday], I could bring in a live band.  But right now it’s not worth my while if I have to start checking people out at 10:30 to get them out of the bar by 11.”

Wilson said the ordinance did not propose alcohol sales on Sunday until 2 a.m. because he believes it would require extra time, effort and money on the part of the Alachua Police Department.

“Extending the hours on Sunday night would require some shifting around of law enforcement,” Wilson said.  “I’ve spoken with members of the Gainesville Police Department who have said they required extra officers on duty because the bars are open until 2 a.m. on Sunday, and that’s something we’re concerned about having in Alachua.”

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NEWBERRY – With the first budget workshop occurring this Wednesday, the City of Newberry may have to evaluate the value of some of its current programs. One of those that may be up for discussion is the Central Florida Community Action Agency’s (CFCAA) Meals on Wheels Program.

The Meals on Wheels Program in Newberry delivers meals to the elderly four days a week except for holidays. At a recent commission meeting, Robert W. Wilford, the CEO of the agency, told the Newberry City Commission that $22,000 was needed to sustain the local Meals on Wheels Program.

The CFCAA provides services to citizens in Alachua, Levy and Marion counties. The other services the organization provides, such as the Emergency Assistance Program, Family Self-Sufficiency Program and the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program, would not be cut if the City of Newberry decided to pull funding for the Meals on Wheels Program.

On average, the Meals on Wheels Program delivers to about 15 to 18 people, Wilford said. Each meal costs $3.95, and the agency would bid out the price after it rose to $4.

“We’ve got to look after the senior citizens we’ve got,” Commissioner Lois Forte said at the meeting.

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