HIGH SPRINGS – Within 20 minutes of the start of the Nov. 29 High Springs City Commission meeting, commissioners had completed the process of annexing more than 100 acres of land into the city.

Each annexation was petitioned by the property owner and included a 58-acre parcel on which the owners, Phillip and Janice Hawley, plan to begin the year-long process of seeking approval to develop a subdivision.

“Some of these annexations were originally submitted during the time the Boundary Adjustment Act was in place,” said City Manager Ed Booth. “It was doubtful some would be approved by the County at that time, so the owners' requests were put on hold.”

When Booth was hired by the City of High Springs, he and staff members went through city records and discovered some requested annexations that were never completed for a variety of reasons. Since that time some of the property owners have withdrawn their annexation requests while others opted to pursue annexation.

Addressing the lack of progress in this area until recently Booth replied, “There were so many other issues to tackle with much higher priority earlier in my tenure. Now that some of those items have been addressed, we were able to turn our focus to this issue.”

Assistant City Attorney Courtney Johnson has contacted each property owner to determine the owners' current intentions and the City has worked with North Central Florida Regional Planning Council to move citizens' requests forward.

“This is the culmination of all that work,” said Booth, “and we're delighted to see the citizens' requests approved by our commission.”

In addition to the Hawley’s 58-acre parcel, other property owners have annexed much smaller parcels. Charlotte R. Ponzio annexed 23.37 acres, Craig P. Hawley annexed 18.04 acres, James F. and Julia D. Jones annexed 2.89 acres and Andrew and Katherine Weitz annexed 6.21 acres. All five annexations together total 108.41 acres.

Within the next 10 years, Booth estimates the city will double in size. “We are at about 6,000 now. We could easily be at a population of 10,000 within the next 10 years,” he said. “We need to be careful how we grow during this period to make sure we have the infrastructure in place for the type of growth we are expecting.”

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Santa greets the crowd at the Tree Lighting Ceremony in Alachua in the downtown area. Afterward, the jolly elf made his way down Main Street to Hitchcock's Theatre Park to visit with children and listen to their Christmas wishes). (Today photo/RAY CARSON)


ALACHUA – Santa may live at the North Pole and travel the world on Christmas Eve, but like anyone who lives in a cold climate he likes to make a few extra trips to Florida whenever he can. On Friday, Dec. 2, he stopped in Alachua to help light the city Christmas tree and listen to the gift wishes of the local children. For 15 years Santa has been stopping in Alachua on the first Friday of December to visit the children. Ten years ago the city added the tree lighting ceremony to the festivities.

Residents gathered on Main Street near Hitchcock Baseball Park at Skinner Field to watch the tree lighting, listen to musical entertainment and hear comments from city officials. The crowd was in a holiday mood, with children excited to meet Santa Claus. Musician Hannah Emerson performed a set of Christmas music, which was followed by comments from city officials. Assistant City Manager Adam Boukari introduced the speakers, starting with Mayor Gib Coerper and Vice-mayor Robert Wilford. City Commissioners Shirley Green Brown, Gary Hardacre and Ben Boukari, Jr., also spoke.

Adam Boukari then took back the microphone to introduce a special guest. Surrounded by a police escort with lights flashing, Santa and Mrs. Claus arrived in a horse drawn wagon supplied by Cross Creek Cattle Company.

Children crowded around to get a view of Santa and try to get his attention. Santa, along with Adam Boukari, then counted down to the tree lighting and the area was bathed in a warm glow of Christmas lights. But the tree was just a prelude to what most of the children were looking forward to. Santa then rode up to Alan Hitchcock Theatre Park, where he took his seat in a special chair for the children to get a chance to tell him about their Christmas wishes.

On Main Street, characters dressed as elves and Rudolf the Reindeer walked among the crowd greeting children and having their photos taken by parents. A young group of 18 violinists from the Mayra Kucera Music Academy serenaded the crowd and the Boy Scouts sold hot chocolate and coffee to raise money for their troop. But the main attraction was Santa.

A long line formed with children anxiously waiting for a chance to sit on Santa's lap and tell him their wish list. The line was organized and maintained by Mrs. Claus and several elves. As each child sat on Santa's lap they had a picture taken by a photographer, which was sponsored by Walgreens Drug Store. The company provided the service and one 5 x 7 inch print for free as their gift to the community. Prints can be picked up at the Alachua Walgreens located at 15155 N.W. U.S. Highway 441.

One-by-one the line moved forward as Santa patiently gave each child his attention for over two hours. As each child left, they also received a gift bag from the City of Alachua. For many of the children of Alachua this night will be special memory of the night they met Santa Claus.

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Spectators watch the Annual A.L. Mebane Alumni Parade held on Main Street in Alachua.  The parade is just one of a number of events taking place over the three-day period that celebrates and remembers the school whose last high school graduating class was in 1971. (Today photo/RAY CARSON)

ALACHUA – For the past 21 years, the student alumni of A.L. Mebane High School have celebrated their unity, pride and history in a three-day Homecoming event on Thanksgiving weekend in Alachua. Various classes from 1960 to 1971 participate as members of the Mebane Alumni Association.

The Association has over 120 members who help keep the legacy of the school alive and provide cultural enrichment and social services to the community. Some of the services they provide are a fish fry for senior citizens, a back-to-school lunch program for students at Mebane Middle School and volunteering at Alachua schools as mentors to the students. They also provide annual scholarships to promising students at Mebane Middle School.

The three-day event started on Friday Nov. 25, with a Green and Gold Dance at the High Springs Civic Center and continued through Sunday with various activities open to the community as well as alumni. Fashion vendors set up at Mebane Middle School and ceremonies recognized the Grand Marshall and Homecoming Queens. Alumni classes competed for highest attendance and in basketball games .Other activities included variety and magic shows. There were also tours of the Mebane Museum at Mebane Middle School, which was established by the Alumni Association. The museum houses information and artifacts form the various African American schools in the area as well as artifacts donated by the Alumni Association. The three day event is an opportunity for all the students who graduated in the 16 years that Mebane High School existed to celebrate their memories and achievements.

For the Alumni Association, keeping their history alive is a matter of community pride. Mebane has a long history that saw changes in education for African Americans and the results of the struggle for racial equality and civil rights. In 1924, the Alachua County Training School (ACT) was opened to provide education for African American children. In this time of racial segregation, blacks and whites had to go to separate schools and few opportunities had existed for African American children. In 1956 the school was replaced by the Mebane School, named after Albert Leonidas Mebane who had been principle at the ACT school. The school covered all grades including high school.

This was still in the time of segregation so the school remained an all black school, but offered the same educational opportunities as other schools. The first graduating class was in 1957. In 1970, Alachua County schools were integrated by Federal law. Public schools in the county were reorganized and Mebane became a middle school. There would be no more graduating seniors. But the unity and spirit of the 14 graduating classes remained strong and the Alumni Association was created. In 1996 the Association held their first Homecoming event.

Throughout the following years, the event grew and became a cultural celebration for the whole community. The most popular part of the weekend is the Saturday parade down Main Street. Each alumni class designs a float, along with community organizations and churches. The parade is led by an escort of police cars and motorcycles, sirens wailing and lights flashing. The sidewalks on downtown Main Street are filled with spectators as cars carrying homecoming queens were interspersed with floats by the various alumni classes. Floats by the classes of 1963, 65, 66, 68, 69 and 71 rolled by as alumni members of each class threw out candy for the children attending the parade.

Once the alumni floats went by, other groups in the parade moved through. A marching band named “352” provided music while uniformed members of the Eastside High School NJROTC gave candy to the kids. Other groups that participated in the parade included The Female Protective Society, Saint Matthews Church, Outreach Ministry, Alachua Senior Cha Chas and the High Rock Riders motorcycle group. The parade closed with a group on horseback including two men portraying Florida's early cowboys, who had earned the name of Florida Cracker Cowboys by using the snap sound of a long whip to round up cows.

After the parade the community went back to Mebane Middle School for more festivities. Through the efforts of the Alumni Association and its annual Homecoming event, the legacy and accomplishments of the 14 years is kept alive each year.

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City workers load a truck with food collected by city staff to be delivered to Blessed Hope for Thanksgiving dinners for local residents.  (L-R) Blaine Roberson, Facilities Department; Vince Holt, Electric Department and Henry Rodriguez, Streets and Roads Department.  (Photo special to Alachua County Today)

NEWBERRY – Results of a canned food drive campaign undertaken by the City of Newberry staff were announced during the Nov. 28 commission meeting. City Manager Mike New challenged all departments to participate and established a city-wide goal of 1,000 lbs. of food.

The food drive was conducted for the first three weeks in November with a weighing in held on Thursday, Nov. 17.

The city topped the goal by collecting a total of 1,136 lbs. of food, all of which was delivered to Blessed Hope to be used locally.

The team bringing in the most food was the Newberry Fire Department, which brought in 261 lbs.

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Jessica Huff greets guests as they browse her booth of crafts.  Huff participated in the High Springs Woman's Club Holiday Expo and Bake Sale this past weekend. (Photo special to Alachua County Today)

HIGH SPRINGS – Sweets, treats and gifts were the focus of the GFWC High Springs New Century Woman's Club this past weekend. Women's Club doors were flung open to invite shoppers to stop in, shop the great items vendors displayed and pick up lunch. Tantalizing homemade sweets were also available for visitors to choose from.

The club’s Holiday Expo and Bake Sale and has been held for the past six years at this time of year to offer arts, crafts and food treats to shoppers.

The weather was perfect for strolling this year and tents were set up outside for those folks who only wanted a quick look. Several additional vendors and bake sale items could be found inside.

“We had beautiful weather,” said Women's Club District 5 Director Vickie Cox. “The expectation was to have a good time and there were great people to work with indoors and outdoors,” she said.

The Club’s mission is to improve the community through involvement in educational, literary, scientific and charitable endeavors, according the club's website. Part of the General Federation of Woman’s Clubs, GFWC was formed by 12 women in 1899. Now, more than 80 women are members and participate in festivities and events hosted by the club.

“I was making Frito pies and hot dogs,” Cox said. “People actually come back and ask for the Frito pies.”

These hearty pies, made with the Frito chips in a bowl with beef or chili, are prepared by members. In addition, chili dogs, pumpkin treats, brownies, cookies and a variety of other delectable desserts were available.

“All of our members contribute,” Cox said. “We had outside vendors as well.”

A total of 22 vendors participated in this year's event. They ranged from photographers and artists selling their artwork to jewelry makers and vendors offering Vera Bradley designer bags.

“My favorite part of this event is having this great opportunity to shop,” said Carole Tate, President of the High Springs Woman’s Club.

“I liked shopping through all the different vendors,” said Tate. “It was a great chance to do some early Christmas shopping.”

The next big events club members are looking forward to will be the High Springs Farmer’s Market in downtown High Springs from 10 a.m. - 2 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 3 and their participation in the Chamber of Commerce-sponsored Twilight Christmas Parade in downtown High Springs on Dec. 10.

Tate said it takes a lot of effort from all the members to pull through in making the event a success.

“It is a lot of work for members of the club, but we love to see people in the community come out and support our projects,” said Tate. “We would like to thank the vendors and the community for their support.”

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NEWBERRY – At a recent meeting, the Newberry City Commission approved a financial plan and gave approval to negotiate a contract with the low bidder to begin renovations to Newberry Fire Station #28, located at 310 N.W. 250th Street. The base bid received was $579,137. However, all of the subcontractors that contractor was planning to use were from out of the area. The commission requested that staff investigate local subcontractors to see if any of them could provide the same services at a better price. Areas in which subcontractors will be sought locally include insulation, plumbing, drywall, framing, electrical, masonry and roofing.

Travis Parker, Facilities Supervisor for the city and project manager for the fire station renovations said, “I’m glad they approved us to get a contractor.” Parker has provided coordination with the architect, engineer and contractors as well as coordinating the bookkeeping and financial plans for the project since Feb. 3, 2015.

Newberry Fire Chief Ben Buckner, who has been with the department since 1994 and chief for the past three years, said it is urgent to get some of the renovations done.

“We don’t have room,” said Buckner. “We have a need. There’s also a gender issue because of the barracks-style sleeping area.”

The fire station, which was built in 1980, with blueprints dating back to 1975, has had only roof-over type improvements in the past 36 years.

“This is basic stuff,” Buckner said. “It’s not fluff. We have single-pane windows with wooden frames. It’s just not energy efficient. We spend about $1,000 a month in utilities.”

In addition to repairs and renovations, the city is planning to increase the department's footprint by adding an ambulance bay. At the time an ambulance becomes stationed at the facility, two more beds will also be required for the sleeping area, which is another consideration when the renovation to the sleeping area takes place.

Currently, $264,480 is available to spend on the project. The city has a perpetual lease on the communications tower and set those funds aside for the project as well as city-budgeted funds from last year.

Additional funding options could include a loan from the city’s Enterprise Funds to the General Fund for any amount exceeding $264,480, with the fire department annual budget including debt-service payments to the Enterprise Funds. The fire department could also pay debt to an external creditor.

“I’m not going to sit here and blame previous commissioners for kicking the can down the road, but are we just going to try and keep everyone pacified or are we actually going to do something to help the station,” Newberry Commissioner Jason McGehee said.

“Let’s just do it right so it’s here for the future,” he said.

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Kada Morris age 4 (left) and her sister Kacelyn age 6 receive press-on tattoos from Alexandra Young at the Annual Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony in High Springs. The tattoo booth was sponsored by the Santa Fe High School Color Guard. (Today photo/RAY CARSON)

HIGH SPRINGS – On the evening of Nov. 18, sirens wailed and emergency lights flashed as police cars and a fire engine came racing down Main Street in High Springs. But there was no disaster or emergency. They were escorting a famous guest to a waiting crowd of anxious children. Santa Claus had come to town.

His visit was just one of the activities at the Annual Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on High Springs Main Street. For the past 15 years, the High Springs Chamber of Commerce has hosted the event as an opening celebration for the holiday season. The ceremony is marked by the lighting of a decorated Christmas tree in the open lot next to True Value on Main Street in the downtown area.

There were a variety of activities, entertainment and vendors during the ceremony, with most of them geared toward children. Christmas is the most celebrated religious and cultural holiday in America and billions of people around the world celebrate it as the day that Christ was born. But beyond its religious meaning it is also a celebration of good will to all – a time to gather with family and friends, a time to share with others, enjoy good food and exchange gifts. Especially for children, there is a special magic to the holiday and the local chamber of commerce wanted to make sure that magic is celebrated for all the children in the community. The Annual Tree Lighting Ceremony marks the beginning of a demonstration of the Thanksgiving and Christmas spirit in High Springs.

While the tree lighting and Santa's visit were the main attraction, there were additional food vendors and musical entertainment. The merchants on Main Street hosted an open house, some providing treats or activities for the children.

In the plaza where the event takes place, various tables were set up with activities such as face painting, Christmas card making, decorating ornaments and cookie decorating with jelly beans and licorice. Other tables offered children small gifts and sweets. Youngsters were able to get stick-on tattoos, lighted rings and small toys.

According to event organizer and head elf, Vicki Cox, organizations such as First Baptist Church, Sammy's ministry, Kiwanis and the Junior Beta club helped to make the event a success, with each year getting bigger. It is a community driven event, geared toward keeping Christmas traditions and Christmas music alive for the community’s children.

The evening started with music provided by Antoinette and Randy Hunt, with Michael Loveday acting as master of ceremonies and sound man. The First Baptist Church provided a choral group who sang to children as their parents strolled to various booths to share in the activities. Chamber member Tom Weller took to the stage to announce the annual Christmas Tree Lighting. With a countdown from the crowd, the lights on the tree turned on, bathing the surrounding area in a burst of color.

But for most of the children, the most anticipated event was the arrival of Santa Claus. With lights flashing and sirens wailing, he arrived in the High Springs fire truck with a police escort as befitting such an important visitor. Children lined up waiting for a chance to sit on Santa's lap to tell him their Christmas gift wishes. One by one they were escorted to Santa by Cox, who dressed as the head elf for Santa. With wide eyes and plenty of smiles, the children got to talk to Santa, creating a memory that would last a lifetime and bringing that special magic that is Christmas.

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