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GAINESVILLE – The Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) has voted to fund an expansion to City of Alachua Hal Brady Recreation Complex.  The move came Tuesday afternoon despite a vote last week from the Alachua County Tourist Development Council (TDC) against the measure.

The City of Alachua has been eyeing a 105-acre tract of land lying adjacent to its recreation complex along County Road 2054 for more than a year.  City officials have reportedly negotiated a $1.2 million purchase price on the land, which is already zoned for a 215-home development with a taxable value of $1.9 million.

Dubbed ‘Project Legacy,” the additional land would more than quintuple the 25-acre recreation complex area the city currently owns.  For several years, the owner and developer of the property has allowed the city to use the land as a parking area during its annual Fourth of July celebration.

Of the $1.2 million needed to purchase the land, some $700,000 has already been raised, Adam Boukari, Assistant to the City Manager said Tuesday.  The funding gap of $500,000 has kept the City from closing on the deal which must be completed by Dec. 31 according to a contract with the owner.

The City of Alachua has committed to building three multi-purpose arenas with seating and lighting that could be used for lacrosse, a growing sport, among other activities.  Those arenas would come at an estimated cost of $300,000, City officials say.  But before the City can construct those facilities, it needs the half-million dollars to buy the land.

In a 6-2 vote last week, the TDC recommended against funding Alachua’s request for the $500,000, which would be taken from the bed tax, fees collected on hotel, motel, campground and similar rentals.

In turning down Alachua’s request, several members of the TDC cited concerns that Alachua’s project did not have enough details and circumvented the process for divvying up the funds raised from a two-cent hike in the bed tax last year.  A portion of that tax has been designated for Nations Baseball Park, under construction in Newberry, while another portion was to be set aside for a new fairgrounds.

In the meeting Tuesday, County Commissioner Rodney Long said he was opposed to funding Alachua’s request by essentially raiding the funds set aside for the fairgrounds.

“I’m not going to take one dollar out of the fairgrounds project until this board makes a determination of what it’s going to do with the fairgrounds and how it relates to the commitment you’ve made to the people in Plan East Gainesville,” Long said.

In challenging claims about the commitment to the fairgrounds project, Commissioner Lee Pinkoson commented that the board, including Long, already transferred $1.2 million from the fairgrounds project to county jail construction projects.

Commissioner Mike Byerly remained opposed to Alachua’s request for the funding citing similar concerns as TDC members that it fell outside of a prescribed process.  Byerly said he was in favor of re-opening the process and reviewing all of the proposed uses of the bed taxes, but not Alachua’s alone.

Pinkoson noted, however, that Alachua’s project did not meet the criteria to be considered in the review process undertaken last year.

Standing squarely behind the project, Commissioner Susan Baird detailed numerous reasons she believed the expansion was important and worthy of funding.  Baird pointed to Alachua’s track record with recreation, bringing numerous major tournaments over the years.

She also said that Alachua has a strategy to improve the quality of life by attracting major companies, which are some of the county’s largest taxpayers, including Dollar General, Walmart and Sysco distribution centers.  The $500,000 would be an investment in something tangible, said Baird.  “We’d provide a quality of life…for those groups that have decided to invest in our area.”

Although concerned about how the City would fund construction of the three multi-purpose fields, Commissioner Paula DeLaney also supported the funding.  DeLaney described it as a “transformational” project that would have long lasting impacts on the area.

In hopes of allaying concerns expressed by DeLaney and others, Alachua Mayor Gib Coerper told county commissioners the City was committed to the project.

“We have been committed to the recreation and the kids in this county for 30 plus years and we’re not going to let them down or let anyone else down who makes a decision for us to move forward with this commitment,” Coerper said.

Pinkoson noted that using the 105 acres as recreation was a more desirable alternative to homes.  “If it’s allowed to be developed, you lose that opportunity forever,” he said.

Details of the agreement haven’t been hammered out, but commissioners gave the green light to start drafting the deal.  In a 4-1 vote, the commission agreed to support the project.  Byerly cast the dissenting vote.  Commissioners referred the matter back to the TDC for a determination of how the request is to be funded.  At issue is whether or not it should be funded through the TDC’s reserve funds, the fairgrounds funds or a mixture of both.

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NEWBERRY – Faced with more questions than answers, in a four to one vote, Newberry city commissioners opted to continue pursuing the acquisition of Canterbury Equestrian Center.

Opposed to the measure, Commissioner Lois Forte said, “I don’t want to move forward with it.”

Forte said the City had borrowed money for another sport-related project, Nations Baseball Parks, fearing the Canterbury acquisition would require additional loans and put the City further in debt. “Newberry citizens are the ones who are going to pay it back” Forte said.

“For me, let’s stop right where we are.”

Commissioner Joe Hoffman countered by saying that the loan for the baseball park is being paid back with hotel tax money, striking down the notion that the city is in debt.

Hoffman also recalled citizen concerns voiced at a September town hall meeting about the City’s proposed purchase of Canterbury. He said that citizens will support the acquisition if they don’t have to pay it for it.

Regardless to what happens to Canterbury, Hoffman proposed that Newberry should still pursue building another sports arena in other parts of the city.

One issue that commissioners did agree on was citizen opposition to having a carnival-like atmosphere at the equestrian center.  Commissioner Jordan Marlowe said it was clear that no one wants a carnival at the site.

City attorney S. Scott Walker said the commission should draft a set of criteria detailing what Newberry would like to do with the equestrian center and start negotiations with the county. One of the concerns is if the Alachua County fairgrounds, which is currently located in Gainesville, and Canterbury are regarded as a package deal, precluding negotiation if separated.

Commissioners were surprised to learn about a rumor circulating of a possible $ 4-million donation if the fairgrounds were to move to Newberry. None of the commissioners were aware of alleged donation.

Lawson commented that the price of the property was still vague, referring to the numbers discussed in September, which ranged between $4 million and $5 million.

Explaining that the owner’s asking price likely doesn’t match what the appraisal or value price would be, Ashby said, “That’s the nut that has to be cracked.”

Moving forward with the process, the City plans to conduct a workshop, possibly involving Canterbury’s property owner and staff.

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MyerHouseWith Halloween fast approaching, ghosts and goblins taking to the streets in search of sweet treats may find a pirate’s booty of candy at this house, which has been transformed into a swashbuckler’s lair, boasting a ship’s steering wheel and a pirate graveyard among its many decorations.

ALACHUA COUNTY – Little feet hit pavement. Candy falls in pillowcases. Shrieks and shouts echo throughout streets. Costumes billow in the wind.

Halloween is the one night of the year when you can transform into someone, or something, else. What better way to spend it than with friends and neighbors?

Whether you have a child dressed to the nines in a costume, or you feel like blowing your diet on sweet candy and becoming a child for a night, there are plenty of activities throughout the area to make an unforgettable Halloween.  And with Halloween falling on Monday, places to go and things to do are springing up all week, into the weekend and culminating on the 31st.

To get into a festive mood, come out to the Alachua Historical Society’s Walking Tour of Alachua’s Main Street on Friday at 7:30 p.m.

Participants will gather in front of the Alachua Woman’s Club on the south end of Main Street to begin the journey. Each step will lead guests to a new Halloween destination, where shops and restaurants will be giving out candy to each visitor, and brightly decorated scarecrows hang from each lamppost.

Take on ghouls and ghosts when walking through the spooky haunted house sponsored by the Alachua Police Explorers. For just $2 for adults and $1 for kids, explore a house that has surprises around every corner.  The haunted house will also be open Saturday night and Halloween night until 10 p.m.

There will also be free horse-drawn carriage rides up and down Main Street until 9 p.m. on Friday. Golf carts will be available for those who can’t walk the whole street.

It’s the pirate’s life for one Alachua family who has been walking the planks… of wooden floors, that is.  Decorating the Historic Meyer House on Alachua’s Main Street has been months in the making.  Complete with a pirate graveyard and a ship steering wheel, the Historic Meyer House is expected to welcome upwards of 3,000 trick-or-treaters on Oct. 31.

But trick-or-treating can be fun anywhere, even from the trunk of a car.

The Abiding Savior Lutheran Church is hosting a Trunk-or-Treat event, where families can collect candy from the trunks of decorated cars.

Kids will show off their cute costumes, goodies will be shared with everyone, and hotdogs, chips and soda will be sold for dinner.

The event, hosted on Halloween night from 5 to 7 p.m., is located at the church and is a safe environment for everyone to enjoy.  The address is 9700 W Newberry Road in Gainesville.

Animals are even getting into the Halloween spirit, and they will be celebrating with visitors at Boo at the Zoo, a trick-or-treating event at the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo.

Families can play games, win prizes and visit 12 candy stations staffed by costumed zookeepers in the clearing in front of the zoo. Costumes are encouraged, and decorations among the different parts of the zoo will create the holiday atmosphere.

The event typically attracts 6,000 people, according the event’s website. Admission to Boo at the Zoo is a donation of one can of food that goes to local food banks. To be admitted into the zoo, visitors ages 4 and up pay $3, while visitors 3 and under are free.

The zoo’s hours will be extended on Halloween, and visitors may enjoy the festivities from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.  The zoo is located at 3000 NW 83rd Street in Gainesville.

While exploring the zoo and succumbing to the temptation of a sweet tooth, guests can also learn about sustainable living. The Gainesville chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council is holding the event Green Halloween concurrently with Boo at the Zoo.

Games, prizes and educational activities that promote green lifestyles will be available to entertain and teach children of all ages about the environment.

Leading up to Halloween, a surefire child pleaser is the First United Methodist Church of Alachua’s 11th annual Pumpkin Patch, located on U.S. Highway 441 just north of Hitchcock’s Market in Alachua.  The patch is open for business Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday from 12 noon to 9 p.m.  Pumpkins of every size and shape are available, along with gourds.

A huge event not to be missed is Alachua’s Trick-or-Treat on Main Street on Halloween night from 6 – 8 p.m., with a costume contest at 7 pm.  Sponsored by the Alachua Chamber of Commerce and the City of Alachua, Main Street businesses stay open to hand out treats to everyone in costume, and the event has become a much anticipated community celebration.

No matter the event, costume or chocolate bar of choice, Halloween is sure to be a time to remember.

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HS_CandidatesThe New Century Woman’s Club Candidates Forum brought together High Springs commission candidates incumbent Byran Williams, Linda Gestrin, Bob Barnas and incumbent Larry Travis.  The four candidates are vying for two seats which will be decided in the Nov. 8 election.

HIGH SPRINGS – Tempers flared as High Springs City Commission candidates discussed the economic future of the city at the 12th annual New Century Woman’s Club Candidates Forum held Tuesday.

Commission hopefuls Bob Barnas and Linda Clark Gestrin are running for the two expired seats, currently held by Mayor Larry Travis and Vice Mayor Byran Williams. Both incumbents are running for re-election.

The New Century Woman’s Club asked the candidates a combination of prewritten and citizen-submitted questions.

The forum started with the candidates introducing themselves to the 70 attendees and explaining their reasons for running. All of the candidates affirmed their love for High Springs and commitment to its future.

Williams began the discussion, explaining that he is from High Springs and has been involved in local government since 2003.

“I want the best for High Springs,” he said. “I’ve always had a High Springs address.”

Barnas said he believes that every candidate loves the city, but “that’s where the line in the sand gets drawn.”

“We have a great town, but it’s a mess right now,” he said. “We need to bring the passion back to the whole city. We need a change.”

Gestrin also called for a new direction in local politics, saying that the town must restore civility to its proceedings. She said she feels more women are getting involved in government because it requires certain skills they inherently have.

“We can balance a checkbook, we can stick to a grocery list and we can discipline the children,” she said. “The principles are the same.”

Travis expressed his confidence in the path the city is taking. He mentioned his leadership positions like chair of the Economic Development Task Force and president of the Alachua County League of Cities, citing his six years of service as proof of his success.

“A lot of tough decisions were made in the last year, but they were made so we can move forward,” he said. “This city has grown. This city has things working in its favor that it never has.”

As the forum moved into the question period, disagreements arose about how to handle the city’s problems. One such issue has been central to the campaign thus far: High Springs’ economic development.

Travis admitted that the issue has plagued the sitting commission for the past few years. He said the problem is not the city’s friendliness; rather, businesses have trouble staying open because of limiting ordinances.

Williams said improvements in zoning and the ease of obtaining business permits would give High Springs a better image. He said this would make it more appealing for businesses to come into the city.

Barnas expressed his frustration about the path the commission has taken. He said it is important to be realistic.

“Bring people here, start slow,” he said. “This has been talked about for the six years the incumbents have been in office, and we’re still talking about it today.”

Gestrin agreed, saying that the city needs more than talking about economic development. She said action must be taken, likening the current commission’s action to driving a car.

“You put the gasoline in the tank, you’ve got the keys in the ignition, the tires are there, but you don’t know how to turn the key,” she said.

Williams stood up, responding passionately to Barnas and Gestrin. He said the divisions in High Springs make governing difficult.

“There’s so much division in this town,” he said. “If I don’t like you, I don’t like your ideas. That’s not how it should be. We must come together.”

Barnas and Gestrin offered economic opportunities in response, saying that the community must capitalize on things like the rivers, railroad and theaters. Gestrin again said the time for talking has past.

“I’m ready to get things done,” she said.

Earlier in the forum, she said putting ideas in writing was one thing, but living the decisions made a big difference. She said the city needs a change in leadership to bring about the necessary differences.

Travis said his record of success speaks for itself.

“You don’t know me too well, Linda,” he said. “I’m a pretty nice fellow. All my awards, you don’t get those for being a bad person.”

He said he has personally taken steps to bring business to the town. He said he went to Publix a year ago and brought them to High Springs. However, he said, the city needs to bring development across the 441 corridor.

“We’re not far off, folks,” he said. “But if we do not have the infrastructure in the ground, it’s not going to happen.”

The candidates also discussed the noise ordinance, the city manager form of government, the proposed preamble to the city charter and their personal volunteer efforts.

Williams closed by saying that he has no personal agenda, wanting the best for every citizen in High Springs. If the citizens could put aside their differences and have intelligent discussions about the issues, the town could really prosper, he said.

“I feel like I’m in a fist fight,” he said. “If we come to the table and set aside our differences, this can be one of the greatest cities in the state of Florida. We have wonderful, wonderful people.”

Travis affirmed his dedication to the city. He spoke out in support of the efforts of the current commission.

“I’ll die here. My ashes will be spread on my farm,” he said. “This is my city. I’m glad I’m an incumbent that’s been part of building this city.”

He explained that neither Barnas nor Gestrin have experience in local government. He said he started out by volunteering with city boards.

Gestrin rebutted firmly, saying that she has done her part for the town, helping various individuals and groups in need.

“Just because you haven’t served on a named committee doesn’t mean you haven’t served,” she said. “I think we need to restore a new direction in civility in City Hall.”

Barnas said he has tried to get involved in government committees before, but has been turned away because of his name. He said because he is a controversial person who is willing to disagree with people, his ideas have been ignored.

“We need to let everybody speak and not shut them down,” he said. “Enough is enough. We will get it done.”

The general election will be held on Nov. 8.  High Springs Citizens will be casting ballots to fill the two commission seats as well as approving or denying six amendments to the city charter. Add a comment

GAINESVILLE – The Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) voted Tuesday afternoon to fund a City of Alachua Hal Brady Recreation Complex expansion despite a vote last week from the Alachua County Tourist Development Council (TDC) against the measure.

For the complete story, see the Oct. 27 printed edition of Alachua County Today.

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ALACHUA – Monday night, the city commission unanimously passed at the second and final public hearing, an ordinance that provides the terms and the process for individuals or businesses to produce and sell energy back to the City.  The ordinance, which includes written policy, application fees and insurance requirements, provides for interconnection and net metering of customer-owner regeneration systems to the City’s electric system.

Kevin Stratten, representing NanoSonic Products, thanked the commission for approving the measure. NanoSonic Products, located across the street from the Progress Corporate Park in Alachua, recently had a 34 kilowatt solar panel system installed on the roof.  The company expects to generate enough electricity to cover its own energy usage with some excess to spare, which will be returned to the grid and purchased back by the City of Alachua.

Referring to the company’s owner, Mayor Gib Coerper said, “I know Dr. Tate is happy with this.”

Others in the audience were not so happy.

“Sometimes the devil's in the details,” said Michael Canney. He was concerned about the cap on how much solar power could be produced while being connected to the grid.

There shouldn't be “artificial barriers” on how much power can come from solar, he said. He hopes this ordinance does not restrict people from going to solar power.

City of Alachua public service director Mike New addressed the expenses of buying solar panels and the long-term payoff. He recommended putting the cost into the mortgage. By law, customers can't oversize panels for their homes, most likely resulting in having zero electricity charges beside the minimum utility customer charge, rather than making money.

Canney also brought up the issue of businesses taking up over half the quota of solar power contributions to the grid.

Vice-mayor Ben Boukari said, “I look at that cap as a checkpoint to look at where we are.” He added that at some point, a time will come when the City may have to charge people for the interconnection.

New said a cap of 2.5 percent of customers that can connect to the City's electric system with their own power “won't be an unfair burden on anyone,” where non-solar panel users are paying for the entire system. He said it would be a disincentive if solar panel users are charged.

Audience member Robert Perez suggested that the city could get off the necessity of depending on big power companies with the possibility of a solar powered, cooperative electric company.

Commissioner Robert Wilford said the ordinance could be used as a starting point, because of changes and “surprises coming up.”

Commissioner Gary Hardacre said the City is far away from not having to use the present power grid, adding “I think this is a good first step for us.”

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HS_EmporiumSharron Britton, owner of the High Springs Emporium, maintains an inventory of distinctive gift items appealing to a wide range of customers, from the frugal shopper to the affluent collector.

HIGH SPRINGS – Fire licks its way up the delicate feathers, consuming the creature in a pile of ashes. Out of this mass rises a colorful bird, reborn.

The mythical phoenix is the logo for the High Springs Emporium. Owner Sharron Britton, 60, knows a little about rising from the flames.

“My first store burned to the ground,” she said. “I lost everything I had. I had to reinvent myself.”

She is now the owner of what she says is the only rock and mineral store in North Central Florida. Her store sells a large variety of mineral products in a wide range of prices.

The store is located in High Springs at 600 NW Santa Fe Boulevard. Open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday, the store has something for everyone, Britton said.

For people looking for unique gifts, she sells trinkets like inexpensive crystal jewelry and small, carved animals, she said.

Serious collectors can choose from Britton’s mineral collection, gathered from all over the world. For these individuals, she offers workshops, either run by her or visiting friends.

“My community is vast,” she said. “People travel hundreds of miles to come to my shop. I get the Goth kids, people looking for gifts, people using stones for metaphysical uses, even religious people. After all, God made the rocks.”

She also utilizes stones for therapeutic purposes, explaining that different minerals have unique energies. By offering consultations at her store, she said she helps people heal.

“People can heal themselves on a certain level,” she said. “They can decide to shift their focus.”

Britton has a counseling background. She moved to Gainesville in 1968 from Venice, Fla., to study psychology at the University of Florida.

Seated comfortably in a plush, scarlet couch, she shoos away volunteers hanging up swooping bats to decorate the store for Halloween. She explained that this back room is for tranquility.

“We talk about things here,” she said. “I can do better counseling at the store.”

However, she encourages people to stop by and explore her store on their own. She set up a spiral labyrinth in the wooded back area to give people an opportunity for mediation.

The labyrinth is made of agatized coral found in North Central Florida. Agatized coral occurs when silica in the ocean hardens, replacing coral with a kind of quartz.

She laid the coral down in lines, following the ancient spiral pattern.

“It creates a walking meditation that’s meant to bring you closer to God and the mystery within,” Britton said. “When you reach the center, you give thanks. As you leave, you feel all the patterns and all the things that don’t serve you leaving.”

This opportunity to learn is most important, she said. That is why she does events like the Halloween Psychic Fair, to be held on Oct. 29.

“This is not about mega-weirdness,” she said. “People can believe in this or not. It is all in the spirit of good fun, positive energy and inquiry.”

The event offers a great variety of psychic readings, from Nordic Runes to tarot cards. However, Britton includes candy for the kids, encouraging them to dress up.

“It allows them to experience reality in a different way,” she said. “It opens their imagination and allows them to create. I like this. It’s fun.”

She enjoys sharing her knowledge of geology with kids that come into the store. Britton started collecting rocks when she was a little girl.

“I like the rocks and minerals in and of themselves,” she said. “I love the possibilities and potential.”

When she moved to High Springs 10 years ago to sell minerals at her brother’s furniture and antiques store, she had no idea where it would lead. All she knew was the importance of waiting for things to reveal themselves.

A year after her move, her brother decided to leave his business. Seeing Britton’s profits, he offered to sign the business over to her.

For years, she ran a profitable business on Main Street. She lost her entire inventory in the fire, which she said totaled about half a million dollars.

However, community members asked her to start over. Her vendors offered to give her merchandise on credit.

“They said, ‘Pay me when you can,’” she said. “Everyone was wonderful and supportive.”

Since, she has paid off all her debts. She said she feels blessed to run a continually successful business, never forgetting the generosity of the community.

She pointed to a towering crystal structure in the corner of the room. The purple stone reaches to the ceiling, white tips glittering.

She explained that it is called an amethyst cathedral. It is a crystal from Brazil, incredibly rare because of the black, round marks that dot the stone.

“They call them frog eyes,” she said. “Here we call them open eyes.”

An open mind is all she asks of visitors. She is careful not to reveal her own beliefs, instead focusing on what she calls the wonderful things people have taught her about other religions.

“I will never say, ‘You have to follow my way to God,’” she said. “We know we are here to turn towards love. I certainly remember that from my Sunday school.”

Britton said she wants any people of good will to come into her store.

Whether people drive 200 miles to take a class or walk down the street to buy a present, everyone is welcome at the High Springs Emporium.

“I want people, when they come in, to imagine the possibility of peace,” she said. “We are all children together in the same place.” Add a comment

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