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GAINESVILLEThe Alachua County Library District is now offering computer and copier use by appointment only at all branches. Patrons will be required to complete a health screening, wear a face covering, and maintain six feet of distance from staff members and other patrons.

One-hour computer appointments will be available at 10 a.m., 2 p.m., and 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday at all branches. Fifteen-minute copier appointments are available from 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Patrons can make appointments for the current day and the next business day by calling a branch. Patrons can make one appointment per day districtwide.

Due to social distancing recommendations, the library is not able to offer one-on-one computer assistance. Food and beverages are not allowed in the buildings. The copiers and printers accept silver change and $1 or $5 bills; staff members are not able to provide change.

Browsing is currently not allowed, but patrons can pick up their holds as they leave their appointment. Patrons who do not follow the Code of Conduct, including not wearing a face covering or failing to practice social distancing, will be told to leave immediately. Library staff members will sanitize computer stations and copier areas, and high traffic areas between appointments.

Please call individual branches to make computer and copier appointments:

  • Headquarters Branch 352-334-3939
  • Alachua Branch 386-462-2592
  • Archer Branch 352-495-3367
  • Cone Park Branch 352-334-0720
  • Hawthorne Branch 352-481-1920
  • High Springs Branch 386-454-2515
  • Library Partnership Branch 352-334-0165
  • Micanopy Branch 352-466-3122
  • Millhopper Branch 352-334-1270
  • Newberry Branch 352-472-1135
  • Tower Road Branch 352-333-2840
  • Waldo Branch 352-468-3298

Curbside service continues at all branches 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Customers can check out items, sign up for a library card, and renew expiring cards via curbside service. Book drops are open. Please visit www.aclib.us/CurrentServices for updates.

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HIGH SPRINGS – The Great Outdoors Restaurant in High Springs has added another chapter to the storied past of the building that originally was known as the Opera House. Built as a socially acceptable venue for entertainment in the then rowdy railroad town of High Springs in 1895, the second floor was used as an opera house, theater and social hall, and in the 1920s as a movie house.

The first silent movie, The Great Train Robbery, was shown upstairs and was accompanied by piano and violin. Later, the building was used for shows and musicals. In the 1920s, a general store and barber shop occupied the first floor.

The building went through a series of tenants over the next five decades, then finally closed its doors and remained vacant for over two years until Bob and Karen Bentz bought it in 2006 to make it into a restaurant.

They spent more than two years restoring the entire building. Today the first floor of the historic building is home to the award-winning Great Outdoors Restaurant, Springhouse Tavern, Outdoor Patio and River Bar, while the second floor is home to the Opera House Banquet and Conference Facility. The building is also on the National Register of Historic Places. For over a decade the restaurant has been a destination restaurant for locals and tourists with live bands on the patio.

When Florida went into quarantine in April due to COVID-19, all businesses deemed non-essential were forced to shut down, including the Great Outdoors. Statewide, thousands were put out of work, and the unemployment rate in April surged to over 14.7 percent. Jobs associated with restaurants and bars disappeared and employees who often worked at minimum wage plus tips were without a paycheck.

Restaurants were allowed to provide takeout or delivery, and each restaurant was faced with determining if it was profitable to keep at least some staff working. Laid off workers could collect unemployment but the system was overwhelmed, and it could take weeks or even months for payment. Most restaurants tried takeout service to survive financially, but some had to give it up when costs exceeded revenues or if their menu was not suited for takeout. For some, it meant the end of that business.

Just as other restaurants had to, when facing closure in April, the Great Outdoors had to make a decision. For the Bentz's and managers David Richardson and Michael Glazer, that decision was made based on the restaurant’s menu that didn't lend itself to takeout and that some food supplies became unavailable. The decision was made to close. “Most of our meals have several elements that would have been hard to do as takeout and the amount of takeout business versus the cost just wasn't viable,” Richardson said

With staff at the Great Outdoors facing unemployment, management searched for a way to help ease their burden. The owners gave everyone a two-week furlough to take care of their other needs. And when the Small Business Administration (SBA) Payroll Protection Plan became available, it was a way for the business to pay employees. But with the restaurant closed, the question was just what would they be paid for?

Behind closed doors, it was an opportune time to do renovations and repairs to the 125-year-old building. But financially it wasn’t feasible if the money was spent paying contractors. The tightly-knit group of staff and managers decided to do it themselves. Over the next month, the staff refinished the indoor floors, sanded and refinished the bars and outside tables, painted, put in shelving and made repairs.

“We also used this time to do a deep cleaning throughout the entire restaurant. The health and safety of our employees and guests is the most important thing,” Richardson said. “Once we reopened, we have kept that as our top priority. We want to be proactive about following guidelines on cleaning, masks and social distancing. All tables are six-feet apart and every surface is wiped down between diners.”

But with the virus still increasing, some traditions have changed at the restaurant such as a revised and reduced menu to accommodate for certain supplies that are now hard to get. Music was cancelled for a while to avoid larger gatherings, which concerned the management. But the restaurant is now featuring live bands on Friday and Saturday nights. Hours have been shortened to 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day but Monday.

Both Richardson and Glazer start their day by checking the health department website for a count of cases and any new guidelines. “We just have to continually stay on top of the situation to protect the health of all. No one knows where this situation is going, so we take it day by day,” Richardson said.

Glazer says the staff still talks about working on the renovations. “We made it through the shutdown, while making the place better. It kept everyone employed and gave the staff a sense of ownership in the future of the restaurant. It gave everyone a sense of pride in the renovation accomplishments,” Glazer said. Richardson agreed, “As a business it’s important to have a culture of working together as a family, it creates a stronger bond among us all.”

And that bond helped make it possible to ensure that the historic building that started out as an Opera House 125 years ago continues to prosper despite the hardship brought on by COVID-19.

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ALACHUA COUNTY — The Alachua County Supervisor of Election is announcing polling place changes for the upcoming 2020 Primary Election.
Precinct 23
The polling location for Precinct 23 is the Wyndham Garden Gainesville, which is located at 2900 SW 13th Street, Gainesville. The Wyndham Garden Gainesville is also the permanent polling place for Precinct 59, so the location will serve voters from both precincts (23 and 59).
Previously, City College served as Precinct 23's polling place. Our office expects to return to City College for the 2020 General Election.
Precinct 25
The polling location for Precinct 25 is the Santa Fe College Blount Center, which is located at 401 NW Sixth Street, Gainesville.
Previously, the Santa Fe College Center for Innovation and Economic Development served as Precinct 25's polling place. That building is now under construction.
Precinct 39
The polling location for Precinct 39 is the Hilton University of Florida Conference Center, which is located at 1714 SW 34th Street, Gainesville.
Previously, the Hilton Garden Inn served as Precinct 39's polling place. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, that building is closed.
Precinct 52
The polling location for Precinct 52 is the Freedom Community Center at Kanapaha Park, which is located at 7340 SW 41st Place, Gainesville. The Freedom Community Center at Kanapaha Park is also the permanent polling place for Precinct 48, so the location will serve voters from both precincts (48 and 52).
Previously, the Disabled American Veterans State Headquarters served as Precinct 52's polling place. The move was made because the Disabled American Veterans State Headquarters does not have adequate space.
Precinct 61
The polling location for Precinct 61 is the Millhopper Branch Library, which is located at 3145 NW 43rd Street, Gainesville.
Previously, The Atrium, a senior living community, served as Precinct 61's polling place. The move was made because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Voters must vote in the polling place to which they are assigned on Election Day, which is Aug. 18. During early voting, which will run from Aug. 3 through Aug. 15, voters may use any one of the six Alachua County early voting sites.
All early voting sites (listed below) are open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day.
  • Supervisor of Elections Office (515 N. Main Street, Suite 100, Gainesville)
  • Millhopper Branch Library (3145 NW 43rd Street, Gainesville)
  • Tower Road Branch Library (3020 SW 75th Street, Gainesville)
  • Alachua Legacy Park Multipurpose Center (15400 Peggy Road, Alachua)
  • Orange Heights Baptist Church (16700 NE SR 26, Hawthorne)
  • J. Wayne Reitz Union, University of Florida (655 Reitz Union Drive, Ground Floor of the Career Connections Center, Gainesville)
Sample ballots for the election are available at VoteAlachua.com/Elections/Sample-Ballots.
For more information, contact the Supervisor of Elections at 352-374-5252.
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COLUMBIA COUNTY – A popular no-fee recreational spot for locals seeking to cool off has been closed since September 2019, but when it reopens there may be a cost. Rum Island is a small spring-fed park on the Santa Fe River, and while it is a popular spot for swimming and launching canoes and kayaks, it is also one of the lesser known parks on the river. This mile of riverfront, encompassing 44 acres was given to Columbia County on Aug. 19, 1965 by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Legend has it that the Rum Island name came from the local moonshine and bootlegging operations on the island in the early 1900s.

The park has always been free to use and includes a small parking lot, boardwalks leading to the spring and a boat ramp where canoe outfitters drop customers off for a paddle down the river. Located at the southern end of the county, it offers free access to the Santa Fe River and accommodates paddling by canoe or kayak, swimming, picnicking and fishing.

Since September 2019, the park has been closed for environmental renovations, repairs to the wooden boardwalks and construction of permanent restrooms. Columbia County received two $150,000 grants, one from the Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD) and the other from the State’s 2019 legislative appropriations.

The legislative appropriations funding was used to construct the permanent restroom facility at the park with separate men’s and women’s restroom with an entry sidewalk for park visitors. The building was designed so that during periods of high-water events, the water could pass through the building. The permanent restroom will replace the porta-lets that have been used in the past

SRWMD grant funds made possible the park’s river bank restoration, as well as funding a portion of the drain field and septic tank work associated with adding a permanent restroom facility to the park. According to SRWMD senior project manager Kristine Eskelin, years of use by visitors and effects of flooding had degraded the river bank, which led to dredging the bank and area around the spring head, putting much of the material on the bank and then covering it with fabric to help hold the bank in place. Sod grass will be planted over it to further stabilize it.

But the restorations and construction are not the only changes to the park. When Rum Island Park reopens, Columbia County officials are considering charging admission and implementing several new fees and rules. According to Columbia County Manager Ben Scott, county officials are considering a plan that would allow Columbia County residents to purchase an annual park pass at a reduced price of $25 compared to an annual pass to out-of-county residents. Senior citizens over 65 years old and veterans could receive the pass at no charge.

The county is also proposing a $5 per vehicle fee for all visitors, with the money placed in an “honor box” at the park. A temporary decal provided would have to be displayed in the vehicle’s windshield or the vehicle could be towed at the owner’s expense. Also, under consideration is banning parking along the entrance road outside the park gate with vehicles subject to towing.

“We’re also setting hours that the park will be opened and closed,” Scott said of the plan. The consensus that county officials reached during a workshop is that the park will be opened from sunrise to sunset. Scott said the proceeds collected from the proposed fees will be used to clean and maintain the park. The Columbia County Commission said that the fee would also serve to limit the number of people at the park. Since parking will no longer be allowed along the entrance roadway there is only a limited number of cars that can come in.

Outfitters or commercial enterprises would be required to purchase a $1,500 annul permit. That amount is higher than other parks or the state park system charges outfitters, which may lead some outfitters to stop using the boat ramp due to cost. This could result in heavier vehicle traffic as outfitters transport multiple people at a time. The board also plans to review a proposal to allocate 20-25 annual passes to the Friends of Rum Island organization, a park support group, whose volunteers periodically clean and maintain areas of the park.

While Columbia County is recommending these changes, there has been opposition from some county residents who maintain they already pay for using the park through taxes. There is also opposition from outfitters about the fee and possible limitations on the number of trips allowed per day.

County officials are not expected to vote on or adopt the new fees and rules until the Board’s first meeting in August. Currently there is no firm date on reopening due to the riverbank sodding. The original projection was for late August or early September.

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ALACHUA COUNTY - The Alachua County Health Department urges residents to follow the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance to minimize transmission within the household setting.
"Our contact tracers are establishing an ongoing trend of transmission within homes and there are steps that one can take to avoid infecting those we live with," stated Paul Myers, Administrator of the ACHD.  "Avoiding prolonged contact, especially with vulnerable individuals, maintaining adequate separation, not sharing household items and enhanced cleaning can reduce transmission risk."
  • Stay home except to get medical care and call ahead before visiting your doctor
  • Separate yourself from other people
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes
  • Clean your hands often
  • Avoid sharing personal household items
  • Clean all "high-touch" surfaces everyday (Use cleaning products per the manufacturer's instructions and keep these products out of the reach of children)
For more information, visit http://www.alachuacountyhealth.com/
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ALACHUA COUNTY - Alachua County's Visitors and Conventions Bureau, Visit Gainesville, Alachua County, in partnership with the Alachua County Hospitality Council, have created tools for area lodging and tourism partners (via the Visit Gainesville, Alachua County Safe Stay Pledge) to show a unified commitment to the health and safety of those who live, work, and visit Alachua County.
Despite the reduced number of visitors and the extreme caution encouraged during the COVID-19 outbreak, summer break, league sports events, back to college preparations, business, medical appointments, outdoor recreation, and visiting friends and family are just a few of the reasons why travelers spend time Alachua County. The Alachua County hospitality community is committed to standing out as a safe choice for visitors.
"At all times, and especially during the time of COVID-19, the Alachua County Visitors and Convention Bureau provides the information and tools that our visitors need to navigate our destination," said Tourism Development Manager, Jessica Hurov. "The Safe Stay Pledge is another way to provide information to help inform the personal travel choices that individuals need to make during their stay. In addition, the VisitGainesville.com website provides links to CDC guidelines and the Alachua County emergency orders to create a one-stop information center for travelers to Alachua County."
The hospitality industry represents approximately 8.1% of the County's workforce and includes hotel, restaurant, attraction, and travel personnel, who are all committed to the safe return of visitors to our destination.
"We are pleased to join Visit Gainesville, Alachua County, in support of the Safe Stay pledge," said Alachua County Hospitality Council President Rebecca Lamb. "Our lodging properties remain ready to welcome visitors and to ensure that our guests are confident that best practices are being followed for their health and safety. Now, more than ever, we are all in this together."
The Safe Stay pledge has been signed by owners and managers at 28 of Alachua County's hotels, motels, and bed and breakfasts.
Representatives of the following businesses and organizations collaborated on this ongoing initiative: AC Marriott Gainesville, Aloft by Marriott ,Best Western Gateway Grand Hotel & Conference Center, Comfort Inn University, Country Inn & Suites by Radisson, DoubleTree by Hilton, Drury Inn & Suites Gainesville, Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Gainesville I-75, Hampton Inn & Suites Gainesville Downtown, Hampton Inn Gainesville, Hilton Garden Inn, Hilton University of Florida Conference Center Gainesville, Holiday Inn Express & Suites Alachua, Holiday Inn Express & Suites Gainesville I-75, Holiday Inn University Center, Home2 Suites by Hilton, Homewood Suites by Hilton, Hotel ELEO at the University of Florida, Hotel Indigo Gainesville, Magnolia Plantation Bed & Breakfast, Residence Inn by Marriott I-75, Sleep Inn & Suites University, SpringHill Suites Gainesville, Staybridge Suites Gainesville I-75, Sweetwater Branch Inn & Suites, The Laurel Oak Inn Bed & Breakfast, The Rustic Inn and Wyndham Garden Hotel.
Safe Stay lodging properties agree to:
  • Follow CDC Standards of Cleaning and Sanitation
  • Wear Face Coverings
  • Wash Hands Frequently and Have Hand Sanitizer Available
  • Follow Social Distancing and Capacity Guidelines
  • Conduct Wellness Screenings of Employees
  • Train Employees on COVID-19 Safety Procedures
  • Work Toward Contactless Payment

For more information, contact Jessica Hurov at 352-374-5260 or jhurov@alachuacounty.us.

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NEWBERRY – The last time a new Florida county was created was almost 100 years ago with the formation of Gilchrist County in 1925. Now there is a movement afoot among some people to create a county separate from Alachua County that would include the smaller municipalities in the western part of the county.

Springs County would include Newberry, Alachua, High Springs, Archer, and the western portions of Gainesville. Newberry City Commissioner Tim Marden, who is one of the leaders of the movement, says the idea began years ago, but has regained traction recently due to the pandemic. The issue of whether the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) has the right to set certain rules for municipalities, including mandating masks and business opening is key to the recent uptick in interest in the proposed new county.

Marden is proposing 34th Street (SR 121) as the dividing line, but the actual division would be drawn by the Florida Legislature, if approved. The idea of a separate Springs County has been around since at least 2015, but the complexity of doing so kept it an idea only among a small portion of the population.

Today Marden characterizes the action as a “political divorce” with much of its origins based on conservative ideology including less government influence in communities and individual lives, less restrictions on businesses, and more influence of churches and conservative organizations. The COVID crisis has played a part in the resurgence of the idea with opposition to the mask mandate and social distancing.

But the idea has grown beyond political lines. Much of the reason it has gained traction is that officials on both sides of the political spectrum in outlying communities feel they are not being listened to by the Alachua County BOCC, which centers much of their actions and tax funds on the more populous Gainesville. There seems to be an attitude among the commissioners that the outlying communities are responsible for their own growth and should be responsible for their own infrastructure. “But these residents of the smaller towns pay the same taxes and should have funding from that,” Marden said. All assets within the new county lines would belong to the new county, since they were already purchased by taxpayers according to Marden.

Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe said he has people contact him on a daily basis about Springs County and those individuals are republicans, democrats, those with no-party affiliation, and Gainesville residents. “This is no longer a partisan issue. This is no longer a small town versus urban issue…they’re clearly frustrated,” said Marlowe.

“I don't think creating a separate county is a good idea or even doable legally or financially, but it is clear that people are frustrated with the lack of representation on the BOCC.” Marlowe added that frustration stems from not only the belief that people are not being listened to, but also that decisions tend to be geared toward the Gainesville area.

“I would rather see more dialogue between the commission and the smaller rural communities,” Marlow said. “We have reached out to the commission multiple times but have not gotten much back and that is creating the problem.” He also realizes that a new county is just an idea, not a plan, and it would take a long time and a lot of money to bring it to fruition.

State Senator Keith Perry echoed that concern. “The problem in Alachua County is that since the majority of the population and voting block is based in the larger Gainesville area, the people voted onto the commission are mostly from Gainesville, and therefore have a vested interest in providing funding and infrastructure to their city, so I can understand the frustration from the outlying communities.” Perry said this creates friction between representatives from different towns and believes this is the impetus behind the idea of Springs County.

“There is currently not a lot of substance or research to the viability of creating a new county,” said Perry. He also said he had been approached by Marden about the idea. “The people behind the initiative need to provide more details for us to be able to research it or bring it up before the legislature, which has the only authority to approve such a move,” Perry said.  

While Marden has not reached out to the mayors or city managers of the towns in the proposed county, he says there is a general feeling of frustration with communications and distribution of county funding among the outlying towns. City officials from Newberry, High Springs and Alachua do not favor splitting from Alachua County, which would be complex and costly and unlikely to achieve constructive results. Most are in favor of establishing improved communications and interaction with the BOCC leading to addressing concerns of the outlying communities and to have more input in BOCC decisions.

Currently, details of how a new county would operate are scarce. The main proposal as described by Marden and the Springs County group revolves around taxes and control of local businesses and government. The group proposes to eliminate property taxes to be replaced with a local sales tax, a step they say that would give more revenue to individuals and small businesses and also keep property from being seized for nonpayment of taxes.

However, if the county were to be created by the legislature, it would be starting with no tax revenue and would have to leave the property taxes in place until enough reserve was created to switch to a sales tax base. But the timeline on that is unknown. While the group believes that eliminating property taxes would attract new businesses and lower costs for existing businesses, it might also drive residents to shop in Gainesville where sales taxes would be lower, or online, which would hurt small businesses that make up the majority of businesses in the smaller towns.

Marden explained the change wouldn’t mean that taxes will go down right away, “Those taxes will just kind of keep going and being basically the same for a little while,” Marden said. “I think there’s an opportunity to drive the expenses of government down significantly, right off the bat, and if we maintain the taxes for a year or two, the spread can be plowed into a lot of the infrastructure projects that have been otherwise neglected.”

The concept of removing property taxes would be to drive down the scope and scale of the county government, focusing on core services such as roads, public safety, utilities, and courts. Individual families, businesses, civic groups, and churches would be responsible for social programs and charities.

Property taxes are required by the state for public school funding and water management districts, as multi-county governing bodies, also levy taxes. The group is also supporting a gas tax to fix the roads, especially county roads that would become the responsibility of Springs County. Currently, outlying towns struggle to get the BOCC to improve or resurface roads. There is presently no research on whether a gas tax would produce enough revenue to replace property taxes, which are also used for road construction. Marden plans to ask the state for property tax records for the proposed area to see if the sales and gas tax would produce enough to replace it.

As far as incorporating the schools into a new county, they will largely stay the same per state requirements. Students attending magnet programs would hopefully benefit from a grandfather clause in any legislation creating Springs County. The group believes that teachers should focus on teaching and there should be more responsibility on parents for food and after-school care services.

While the School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) has a $423 million budget, teachers in Alachua County are among the lowest paid in the state. How much of a budget the schools in a newly created county would have remains unknown.

A new county would also require maintaining or creating new fire and police departments. While Marden says some first responders would leave to stay within the Alachua County retirement system, the departments would be smaller based on a primarily rural area.

Newberry currently has its own fire department but uses the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office (ASO) for police protection, meaning the city would have to create its own department, as would Archer. The City of Alachua has a police department but uses fire services from Alachua County. High Springs has both fire and police departments.

A new county would also have to create a county commission with members from each community. Marden says that currently, residents interested in attending BOCC meetings have to travel to Gainesville and he believes that creating a local commission would mean more citizen participation.

The idea of Springs County has gained traction with some people, but there is little quantifiable data available to support its creation or sustainability—information that is necessary before any proposed legislation can be considered.

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