W - Watermelon

Photo special to Alachua County Today

Two women eating watermelon at last year's festival. The event is one of the longest running festivals in the country.

 NEWBERRY – In 1946, the City of Newberry held a watermelon festival to celebrate the end of the Second World War and to embrace the country’s return to prosperity after the Great Depression. There was a plentiful harvest of crops, and the residents of the town thought it was a fitting way to celebrate. That tradition continues today.

“As far as we can tell, it’s one of the longest continual festivals in the country,” said Kathi Lee Thomas, who now serves as the president of the festival after being its secretary since 1993.

The event is ushered in with a parade, followed by an auction and watermelon eating contests.

Residents then go head-to-head, competing to see who has the biggest melon, and the Watermelon Queen is named.

The search for the queen begins weeks before the festival, with a pageant for prospective watermelon royalty. Newberry’s queen takes on the role of an agricultural advocate as she competes at the state level.

Meagan Morgan became Florida’s queen a few weeks ago.

Morgan, born and raised in Chiefland and studying dental hygiene at Santa Fe College, became involved with Newberry during a Teen Queen pageant in 2012.

Her connections helped her prepare for the state watermelon pageant. She will compete in the national campaign in March 2015, after she spends the year promoting Florida watermelon agriculture by attending conventions. She will even be going to markets to help folks pick out the ripest watermelons.

“It should have a mellow, yellow belly, no bruises or scratches,” Morgan said. “Since it’s 92 percent water, it should be pretty heavy.”

She has had a passion for agriculture, and this is her way of becoming involved with Florida’s watermelon industry, one of the top producers in the country.

Morgan works with Florida Watermelon Association and Florida growers as a spokesperson to promote the watermelon market sustained by local agriculture.

“Once watermelon season starts in April, we will go somewhere different every weekend,” she said.

“We even have a convention planned for Canada, which will be pretty exciting.”

Festival day is May 17, at Destiny Community Church off Highway 26 in Newberry. All the proceeds go to the Watermelon Festival of Newberry, Inc. Scholarship Fund. The Florida Watermelon Queen becomes part of a large public relations campaign to promote Florida agriculture once she receives her crown, going to local super markets like Publix and Hitchcock’s to hand out fresh slices of watermelon, as well as going on farm tours, taking pictures with local growers and visiting schools.                   

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HIGH SPRINGS – With the High Springs police chief Steve Holley on a month-long vacation and Sgt. Antoine Sheppard taking up the role of acting chief, officials have dismissed or remained silent about the possibility that Holley might step back down to the position of sergeant at the end of his leave.

“I can neither confirm nor deny that,” Holley said in a Feb. 3 interview.

Holley met with City Manager Ed Booth last week, right before taking his time off, to discuss reorganizing the police department, he said. He declined to go into further detail.

“I can’t say anything more than that, really,” Holley said.

Booth did confirm an upcoming workshop to look at the possibility of reorganizing the police department.

“We will be looking at the whole organization of the department,” Booth said.

Commissioners will compare the organization of the High Springs Police Department (HSPD) with other police departments in cities with 5,000 to 6,000 residents to determine if changes should be made to improve services, he said.

“Our city currently lacks a detective and an accident investigator,” he said.

Holley built up 30 days of vacation time by covering other officers’ shifts, Booth said in a previous interview. He is taking the full 30 days.

“I put in a time off request, I really can’t talk about it,” he said.

Alachua County Today made a public records request for all email correspondence between Booth and Holley, but was unable to find any.

Florida’s Sunshine Law, passed in 1967, establishes a basic right of access to governmental meetings and records, including any emails to or from an official email account. The law does not cover informal, in-person meetings, however.

“I don’t use email for this exact reason,” Booth said, when asked about public records of conversations between him and Holley.

Holley took over after the interim chief, William Benck, resigned in January 2012 over disputes with the interim city manager, Jeri Langman.

After Benck left, Langman, over the span of three days, promoted Holley to sergeant and then again to police chief, which could have been in violation of the city’s contract with the police union, the North Florida Police Benevolent Association.

The contract establishes a process that has to be followed for a promotion, including a written exam and other specific procedures. These procedures were not followed, said Jim Troiano, former High Springs police chief who helped negotiate the contract.  

The memo advertising the position for police chief said the position requires a four-year degree. Holley has a two-year degree from Saint Petersburg College, formerly Saint Petersburg Junior College.

After Langman promoted Holley, Commissioner Bob Barnas, then vice mayor, said in a commission meeting that he would bring a sense of community and a new managerial style to the city.

Bob Barnas, Linda Gestrin and Dean Davis, then mayor, who had a majority on the commission, later made Langman the permanent city manager in February 2012.

During Holley’s tenure as chief of police, multiple complaints have been filed against him by his coworkers.

Angela Stone, currently working for the Office of the City Clerk, worked as an administrative assistant to the High Springs Police Department in 2012. In August of that year, she filed a complaint against Holley for creating a culture of fear in the workplace.

“My work environment is a hostile and an uncomfortable one, and it is and becomes worse daily,” she wrote.

Holley walked into Stone’s office with two others and asked if it intimidated her, she wrote.

Stone also claimed Holley went through her desk in order to find a key to the evidence room.

Former HSPD officer Adam Joy also filed a complaint against Holley last year with several grievances, including favoritism to personal friends.

According to Joy’s complaint, Holley gave friend and former shift partner, officer Ryan Scott, a key to the department and access to passwords.

“It appears more that officer Scott runs the department instead of Chief Holley,” he wrote. Holley confided everything in Scott, leaving other officers and supervisors in the dark, Joy complained.

The city received a letter of resignation from Scott on Tuesday, Feb. 4.

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ALACHUA COUNTY – County Commissioner Susan Baird has decided not to run for her seat again in November.

Baird sent out a press release last week announcing her decision not to seek re-election.  

“As a single mom with a daughter entering her formative years of high school and a demanding schedule in my work life, I need to step away from elective office,” she wrote.

Baird’s daughter, who is 13, will begin high school in August.

“It was a very hard decision,” she told Alachua County Today. “Public service, if done right, is a full-time job.”

Baird is a licensed real estate agent with Bosshardt Realty Services, and the sole provider for her family, she said. Her mother and sisters live with her.

“Four years ago, I saw a county commission that did not listen to the needs of ordinary citizens struggling to get by in a touch economy,” she wrote.

Baird wrote that she was proud of her efforts to keep spending in line, renovate roadway infrastructure and focus on economic development.

“Although all of my goals were not accomplished, I’ve fought hard, listened to the people and provided a voice for those left behind by the so-called progressive agenda,” she wrote.

Baird is the only Republican serving on the County Commission.

She also wrote about how she fought for the 30 percent of Gainesville Regional Utility customers who are not represented by the Gainesville City Commission.

She has been with the commission since 2010. Baird ran because she saw a commission that had been taken over by a faction dedicated to a narrow political agenda, she wrote.

“I’m especially proud of my effort to bring some sunshine to the informal meeting process that had previously crystalized too many votes on critical issues before they were publically vetted,” Baird wrote.  

Though she is giving up her office, Baird will continue to be involved in local politics by supporting conservative candidates.

Former Hawthorne Mayor John Martin, Ken Cornell, who also works with Bosshardt Realty Services and Kevin Thorpe, pastor at Faith Missionary Baptist Church of Gainesville, will be running against each other for the Alachua County Commission District 4 seat.

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NEWBERRY – With City Manager Keith Ashby planning to retire in the upcoming months, the City of Newberry is turning its attention to finding a replacement.

The city has contacted the International City/County Management Association for help through their Range Rider program, said Mayor Bill Conrad.

Established in 1974, the Range Rider program assigns retired city managers as volunteers to provide counsel and advice. Newberry’s Range Rider, Dick Kelton, from Sanford, Fla, works as a volunteer with the League of Cities.

The city met with Kelton this week to plan a process to search for Ashby’s replacement.

Newberry will give Kelton salary expectations and criteria for education and experience, along with its goals for economic development and strengthening the sports tourism in the town.  

Ashby hasn’t received a pay raise since he came on board with the city, Conrad said.

“We’re aware of the fact that we’ll probably have to adjust our pay upwards,” he said.

Kelton will provide Newberry with salary ranges based on cities of a similar size and economy, relative to the experience and education of the city manager candidate. From there, they will refine the search criteria.  

He will then screen hundreds of applicants, bringing the list down to about 12 to 15, Conrad said. The City Commission will look at those and come up with the short list of about three to five candidates, followed by public hearings for each of the applicants.

Conrad said he hopes the process can be finished within the next three months, though it could take up to six. Ashby announced he plans to retire in three to six months in early January, but Conrad said he might stay on longer if the transition called for it.

“He’s really interested in making sure it’s a smooth transition,” Conrad said.

Ashby announced his impending retirement at a City Commission meeting, citing his age as a primary reason for wanting to leave. The 70-year-old has been the city manager for 10 years. Richard Blalock, recreation director, and Lowell Garrett, city planner, whom Ashby described as his right and left arms, respectively, also left the city recently.

He has had heart issues in the past year that resulted in two operations, and the stressful environment of running a city prompted Ashby to want to leave to spend more time with his wife and five children, Ashby said in an earlier interview.

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W - ntireform


Photo special to Alachua County Today

This microscope image shows the structure of the fertilizer made from recycled rubber.
ALACHUA – Dan just spent the entire day working on his lawn, laying fertilizer throughout his yard. Then just 15 minutes after he heads inside, the clouds open up and rain begins to pour down. Any chance of that fertilizer being effective would have been washed away, but a new product could change that.

The company is called Eigenchem, and they are working on a new recycled waste product that acts as an efficient fertilizer, as well as an asset to the ground, even after the nutrients are released.

Alexander Oliferenko is the president and chief science officer or EigenChem Technologies Inc., and he and the company have been working in the Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator in Alachua for the past three years.

The idea was to set out and conduct research with recycling waste and find a way to reduce the harmful impacts it can have on the environment, Oliferenko said.

“The plan was to liquefy rubber, and we actually discovered, quite accidentally, a very good nitrogen fertilizer,” Oliferenko said. “Our product is approximately 60 percent fertilizer and 40 percent rubber, after the reaction.”

It looks similar to rubber, but has a very different composition to it. It appears to have little holes or pores, and is much softer as well.

The patented product is called NTireForm, which, when broken down stands for nitrogen, tire and formula. It also can be read like entire-form, for a complete formula, Oliferenko said.

It works just like any other fertilizer, until it reacts with water. Standard fertilizers are almost completely washed away when it rains, but NTireForm absorbs the water, swells up and releases the fertilizer over time. It takes roughly two to three months for the process to completely release all the nutrients, Oliferenko said.

“After the nutrients have been dispersed into the ground, the left-over agent is incredibly absorbent,” Oliferenko said. “It is very sponge-like, and can hold almost eight times its own volume in water.”

The company began working on the product several years ago. Six months ago, it received a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to test their idea and work on a proof-of-concept. Oliferenko turned in his last report for the grant two weeks ago.

“We had a good proof-of-concept and produced eight batches of material,” Oliferenko said. “We also managed to add potassium to our product, making it an even greater fertilizer than before.”

Now, the project is set to enter phase two. They have applied for another grant, this one for $750,000. For the next two years, EigenChem is going to be working alongside Jason Kruse in the Environment and Horticulture Department at the University of Florida to conduct field trials.

The main facet of phase two is going to be in commercialization and customer identification, Oliferenko said.

“I think the best application for our product in the field trials will be in turf-grass management,” Oliferenko said. “It could be golf courses or sports fields. But, it will also be an excellent product for landscaping and other lawn maintenance.”

EigenChem is a notably successful business out of the Sid Martin Biotech Incubator, said Patti Breedlove, the director of the incubator. The average stay for a company in the program is five years, but it can be more or less.

“A company must apply for admission, and not all are accepted,” Breedlove said. “Each year, they are reviewed to see if they will be renewed for another year, and graduation is customized for each company.”

The incubator provides business guidance, introduces companies to investors and helps with networking the young companies as well, Breedlove said.

The program lowers barriers to entering the market by giving access to affordable lab space and offering leadership throughout, said Nathalie McCrate, a public relations intern for the incubator.

“Any early-stage bioscience company has to overcome daunting challenges, and Sid Martin helps the likes of EigenChem translate scientific discoveries from the lab bench to the marketplace,” McCrate said.

“It truly is a great facility,”Oliferenko said. “We started with just two of us and an idea, and now we have two full-time and two part-time workers on the project.”

Oliferenko started three years ago with a problem he hoped to solve.

“It is always tempting to work on turning waste into a valued product,” he said. “We took that desire and turned it into a great opportunity.”

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HIGH SPRINGS – Commissioners have several workshops coming up to help resolve a number of issues facing the city in the near future.

“We need to do more with less,” said City Manager Ed Booth. “The city has a lot of challenges to address. Commissioners and citizens need to be involved in deciding how the city will address these issues,” he said.

One possible outcome of workshops on the sewer system, currently scheduled to begin on Thursday, Feb. 20, could be a moratorium on new subdivisions that require sewer hookup. The city currently has numerous subdivisions and planned unit developments in the pipeline which will provide 700 to 800 new homes. Builders are averaging 50 residential buildings per year at this point.

“We don’t currently have the ability to serve any more subdivisions than those already approved,” he said.

This first workshop will focus on what Booth said is the most serious city sewer system issue, the failure of 10-year-old grinder pumps and their replacement costs. The workshop will be held at the High Springs Elementary School and Community Center to allow input from a larger group of city residents than usually are able to be accommodated at City Hall.

“We have 500 110-volt grinder pumps that are 10 years old,” Booth said. The cost to replace them is $2,500 each, not including installation.

The second workshop will focus on the city’s police department. The commission will look at how the department is organized and compare it to other departments in cities of a similar size, Booth said.

Officers are trying to investigate crimes and accidents at the same time. “We also need to look at dispatch to determine its effectiveness,” he said. Currently, 911 calls for fire services are routed through the county directly to the High Springs Fire Department. However, 911 calls for police services are received by the 911 center in Gainesville and the information is taken and sent to the High Springs Police Department. The only way to get direct city police services in High Springs is to dial their number directly.

The third area to be addressed is the city’s personnel manual. Issues concerning personal time off versus vacation and sick leave need to be addressed, Booth said. The city’s new employee union has made several recommendations, and the city attorney is in the process of reviewing the personnel manual. Recommendations for changes will be the subject of another workshop.

Booth also plans to talk with commissioners about the city’s land-use plan. North Central Florida Regional Planning Council is currently reviewing the plan for suggestions. “The plan was developed years ago for a different city and does not really reflect the issues we face in High Springs,” Booth said. “We want to create a plan that deals with the issues we actually face here,” he said.

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W - MLK Alachua DSC 3493

CARL MCKINNEY/ Alachua County Today

 The Rev. George Trotman begins his speech at the MLK celebration. He read the famous "I Have a Dream" speech in its entirety.

 ALACHUA – A city gathered to celebrate one of the 20th Century’s most famous civil rights activists.

The City of Alachua held its celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. for the ninth year in a row on Monday, Jan. 20 at the Hathcock Community Center.

The ceremony started around 11 a.m., with Wilma Rogers, who helps run the Alachua Music and Arts Program, giving a speech on the changes King brought about.

“That change lives on inside each of you,” she said. Positive change is rewarded by God, she added.

After Mayor Gib Coerper acknowledged the veterans in the audience for their service, City Manager Traci Cain gave her interpretation of the celebration.

“What a beautiful day it is to come together as neighbors, friends and family,” she said.

Cain talked about the sacrifices King made for civil rights.

“He put his life on the line for what he believed,” she said. She spoke of the hope he had.

“Let’s continue to have hope.”

Rogers then brought the children of the Music and Arts Program on to the stage to sing “We Can Change the World,” composed by Wilma Rogers’ husband, Bill Rogers. Samantha Flores, one of the young singers, led the performance.

The group recently had a chance to visit Martin Luther King Jr.’s home in Alabama. They have also been invited to attend the Trumpet Awards in Atlanta, Ga. at the end of the month to represent Alachua. The show will be televised in 185 countries.

Joni Perkins, from the Music and Arts Program, recited the Maya Angelou poem “Still I Rise,” which challenges everyone to hold their head high and empower themselves and others.

Wilma Rogers took the stage again, this time to thank the parents for their support of the Music and Arts Program.

“We cannot do this without you,” she said.

The Rev. George Trotman then took the stage as the main speaker, talking about the lasting impact of Martin Luther King Jr.

“Truly, this is a good day,” he said. “We are blessed to be in a land where we can assemble together.”

If Martin Luther King Jr. was still alive, Trotman said, he would say all honor and praise should go to God, not himself.

“We thank God for Martin,” he said. “The one prevailing thought was his love for humanity.”

Trotman recited the entirety of King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

As Rogers closed the ceremony, she invited the audience to remember, celebrate and act. She challenged everyone to follow through on their dreams. She also asked people to share an appreciation for history with the youth, something she said many young people lack.

For the rest of the afternoon, residents ate barbecued meat, listened to musicians strum guitars and conversed with one another.

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