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ALACHUA ‒ On the evening of Dec. 3, the Amphitheater at Alachua’s Legacy Park hosted Dance Alive National Ballet's (DANB) production of “The Nutcracker” to an estimated crowd of 700 people. The amphitheater was part of the overall plan to make Legacy Park a central location for recreational and cultural activities.

The Gainesville based professional ballet company has been performing “The Nutcracker” for 54 years with over 200 touring performances and 30 school programs in the United States. Over the past four years it has also become a traditional show in Alachua as well.

Like many entertainment performances, the pandemic has hit the ballet industry hard. Most of DANB's scheduled performances for this winter and spring 2021 have been canceled or postponed due to limitations on venues and crowd size. But “The Nutcracker” is an important part of the company’s history, and some shows that could be performed either outdoors or in larger venues that would allow for audience social distancing remained. One of those was the Alachua performance of “The Nutcracker” as over 30 dancers performed a nearly two-hour show at the outdoor amphitheater under the stars.

In 1966 Mary Ellen Pofahl, a professional dancer and teacher, founded the DANB company and it has continued through the talents and efforts of her daughters, Judy Skinner and Kim Tuttle. The Dance Alive National Ballet has become the premier touring company in the Southeastern United States. It is actually two entities under the direction of the two sisters. Tuttle and Skinner are owners/directors of the Dance Alive National Ballet with Tuttle serving as Artistic Director and Skinner serving as Choreographer-in-Residence.

While “The Nutcracker” was the last performance of the year at the Legacy Park amphitheater, it demonstrated how successful this outdoor stage can be. And Legacy is fulfilling its namesake by providing space and creating an environment of entertainment and culture for the community provided by the City of Alachua, free of charge to those attending.

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ALACHUA ‒ Visitors to the city of Alachua’s Main Street were in for a treat Saturday afternoon, Dec. 12. For the past 36 years the Alachua Chamber of Commerce has hosted the annual Christmas Parade through the downtown area. Each year local businesses, government departments, civic groups and churches sponsor floats to entertain the spectators and compete for prizes. Children anxiously awaited the parade for chance to see Santa Claus and collect the treats thrown from each decorated float or handed out by people walking alongside.

This year however, the world is different due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which is currently surging during the holidays. High Springs canceled its annual evening parade due to concerns about crowd size and ability to social distance, and instead residents had a parade of decorated cars driving around downtown High Springs.

Alachua moved forward with the afternoon parade as an important tradition for area children and to give them a sense of normalcy at Christmastime. All parade participants wore masks as did most of the spectators. While the event was smaller than previous years, both in crowd size and in number of floats and entries, the excitement was palpable among the crowd as they enjoyed the parade. Instead of the usual 35-40 floats, this year there were only 28, but the festivities, enthusiasm and spirit of Christmas celebration were ever present.

This year’s parade theme paid tribute to a throwback collection of classic toys. The parade historically starts with a police escort, and this year was no different. With lights flashing and sirens wailing motorcycle patrolmen led the parade, followed by police cars from Alachua and High Springs.

Families still lined the street in lawn chairs to watch the procession, although they were spread out in their family groups to help create social distancing. Following the police escort was a flag color guard consisting of three Marine veterans. Other members of the Marine Corps League of Veterans followed in two army jeeps outfitted with an American flag waving from a pole. Additional veterans walked along the sidelines handing out candy. City Mayor Gib Coerper followed them, waving at the crowd.

The parade's grand marshal, newly elected Alachua County Sheriff Clovis Watson, Jr., greeted the hometown crowd from a vintage convertible Mustang. The Santa Fe High School Raider Regiment provided the parade’s marching band and engaged the crowd with their holiday tunes.

The City of Alachua’s float, fashioned like a red radio flyer wagon, featured a display of giant-sized favorite children’s toys, including Legos, tinker toys, a barrel of monkeys, and Raggedy Anne. City Commissioners Shirley Green Brown and Dana Miller joined City employees on the colorful float.

Volunteers, walking alongside the floats, were dressed in Christmas attire or portrayed characters such as Santa's elves, and handed out candy to the children along the parade route. For the children, it was a magical time, seeing the colorful floats and costumed characters, along with free candy and gifts.

Other float sponsors included Mi Apa Restaurant, Shriners, Domino’s Pizza, Alachua 4H Club, MatchMaker Realty, All Stars Twirling Academy, Momentum Dance Academy, High Springs Playhouse, Santa Fe Babe Ruth Baseball team, Boy Scout Troop 88 and Pack 88 Cub and Tiger scouts.

As each float passed the judge’s stage at the intersection of 148th Place and Main Street, parade MC's Ben Boukari, Jr., Mike DaRoza and Robert Bonetti announced the sponsor of each float, oftentimes pausing long enough to chat with the participants.

But the best was yet to come as the float everyone was waiting for arrived. Santa Claus waved to the children as he rode by perched on top of a firetruck. Excited youngsters responded by waving and calling out Santa's name to try and catch his attention.

At the conclusion of the festivities, the judges awarded first place to the Momentum Dance Arts float, which was decorated in a Barbie doll theme and featured dancers dressed as vintage Barbie dolls

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NEWBERRY ‒ The City of Newberry is considering how tiny home neighborhoods may fit within the city. City Commissioners and the Planning and Zoning Board have been discussing tiny home neighborhoods during the past few meetings. Part of what is at issue is whether to permit tiny home neighborhoods by right or by special exception.

Planning and Economic Development staff members have been seeking direction from Commissioners on how they think the City should approach related issues as they attempt to address interested residents and developers.

Staff members have researched various regulations adopted by different communities throughout the state and country, as well as the Florida Building Code. Based on their research, staff created a list of discussion points for consideration.

“Tiny home neighborhoods are intended to provide opportunities for creative, diverse and high-quality infill development, promoting a sense of community and offering a variety of housing types and sizes available within the development to meet the needs of a population diverse in age, income, and household composition,” said Planning and Economic Development Director Bryan Thomas.

“Tiny home neighborhoods can provide affordable housing, a more efficient use of land, encourage creation of more usable open space for neighborhood residents, and provide a means to maximize resident and pedestrian-oriented outdoor spaces while minimizing the impact of automobile traffic and parking. They often include shared amenities such as laundries, storage areas, enclosed or covered gathering spaces and open recreation areas,” he said.

In general, tiny home neighborhoods serve three primary markets. First, tiny home communities appeal to individuals who are seeking to live a more minimalist lifestyle characterized by having a smaller environmental impact, maintaining low to no housing debt and acquiring as few personal possessions as necessary.

Second, tiny home communities can serve the need for affordable housing, providing low to moderate income families with more housing options.

And finally, tiny home neighborhoods can provide opportunities for short-term rentals in the community, such as Air BnBs and vacation rentals.

On Nov. 2, 2020, the concept of tiny home neighborhood development was presented to the Newberry Planning and Zoning Board for discussion. Discussion centered around whether tiny home neighborhoods should be allowed in existing residentially zoned areas, “by right,” or by Special Exception; the type of construction (i.e., site-built, modular, or manufactured); minimum open space, common space and parking requirements.

In discussion with the Commission, Thomas pointed out that the ordinance they are considering allows for tiny home neighborhoods in subdivisions being built.

However, in neighborhoods where homes have already been established, he suggested it would be best to allow tiny home neighborhoods to be allowed by special exception. Neighbors who bought their homes expect the neighborhood to stay somewhat the same as when they bought.

Thomas plans to present an ordinance for Commission consideration in January 2021, after it has been considered by the Planning and Zoning Board.

Scheduled Newberry City Commission meetings will take place on Jan. 11 and 25, 2021.

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NEWBERRY ‒ A proposed recreational vehicle resort and campground in Newberry was narrowly approved by the Newberry Planning and Zoning Board on Dec. 7 in a 3-2 vote.

While three quasi-judicial public hearings and a discussion on food truck regulations were scheduled for the Dec. 7 Newberry Planning and Zoning Board meeting, due to lengthy discussion of the recreational vehicle campground, the food truck discussion was rescheduled.

The public and Board members posed questions to the property developer during the hearing seeking approval of a Special Exception (SE) to allow a recreational vehicle resort and campground on some 94 acres of land located at 2120 N.W. State Road 45. The property, which is owned by Marie Ratliff, is in the “A” Agricultural Zoning District of Newberry.

David McDaniel of M3 Development, LLC, submitted the application on behalf of Ratliff. The City’s Planning and Economic Development Director Bryan Thomas recommended approval of the application and explained that the project met or exceeded guidelines set by the City.

When fully built out, Tree House Village RV Resort will consist of 850-units. According to McDaniel, Phase One of the project involves 45 acres of tree house-type gazebos connected by suspension bridges in the seven acres of hardwood trees on the property.

Planned amenities include a pool, clubhouse, open grill areas, an open fire pit, pickle ball courts and a splash park. The development includes park model cabins, which are small houses that can serve sports-related, as well as other types of visitors, to the area. McDaniel said they had developed a traffic plan, which had already been submitted to and approved by the Florida Department of Transportation.

Residents and Board members voiced concerns about the development and its upkeep and long-term maintenance of the property as well as noise, lighting after dark and wildlife impacts, especially in the seven-acre tree area. Increased traffic due to increased population in the area also concerned residents, especially those who live near the site.

Board Member Bill Conrad recommended approval, including that the applicant be allowed to extend length of stay of visitors to 108 days and increase the number of park models by 20 percent. The motion was seconded by Vice Chair Linda Woodcock. The motion passed in a 3-2 vote with Chair Jessica Baker and Board Member Gavin Johnson voting against the development. The proposed project will now be forwarded to the Board of Adjustment for further consideration.

Another Planning and Zoning Board agenda item considered was an application to amend the Future Land Use Plan Map of the Comprehensive Plan by changing the Future Land Use classification from Alachua County Rural/ Agriculture to City of Newberry Agriculture on three properties previously voluntarily annexed into the City.

Following discussions on each of the three items separately, and with no comment from members of the public, Ordinance 2020 – 32 received a motion to approve by Board Member Conrad, which was seconded by Board Member Johnson and unanimously approved.

Ordinance 2020-34 and Ordinance 2020-36 received a motion to approve by Board Member Conrad, which was seconded by Board Member Naim Erched. These ordinances will be heard by the City Commission on first reading during the Dec. 14 meeting.

In a third item on the Planning and Zoning Board agenda, the Board unanimously approved changes to the City’s Official Zoning Atlas by changing the zoning from Alachua County Agriculture (A) to City of Newberry Agricultural (A) on the same three parcels of land previously voluntarily annexed into the City. This application is contingent upon approval of the previous application by the City Commission on first reading, also on Dec. 14, and then by the state of Florida. The Newberry City Commission will consider the zoning changes at the Dec. 14 City Commission meeting.

The discussion regarding food truck regulations was postponed following a motion to do so by Board Member Erched, which was seconded by Vice Chair Woodcock and unanimously approved. The meeting ended at 10 p.m.

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ALACHUA ‒ Toys for Tots is a program familiar to many, but its beginnings may not be as well known. Toys for Tors is run by the United States Marine Corps Reserve. The program began in 1947 and was so successful in its inaugural year, that in 1948 Toys for Tots was launched as a national campaign. The program continued to grow nationally with Marine reservists, often in their dress blue uniforms. In order to make the program more efficient, the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation was created in 1991.

During October, November and December of each year, the Toys for Tots program collects new, unwrapped toys and distributes those toys as Christmas gifts to needy children in the community. However, in 2020 with the pandemic, economic downturn and high unemployment, there is unprecedented need for the program.

“Because of the economic situation we have seen a 20 percent increase in requests for toys this year, and we have also seen a decrease in drop off of gifts in stores, especially the bigger chains. People are staying home due to pandemic, which has also led to more people doing online shopping instead of going to stores.” said Dennis Wait, Toys for Tots director of the Alachua and Tri County area.

“We have also seen an increase in individuals giving gifts and more people volunteering. We even had two young sisters, London and Layla Walker, ages seven and eight, raise $650 to buy toys for the annual drive,” Wait said. “We usually give out 20,000 toys to more than 3,000 kids throughout Alachua, Gilchrist, Dixie and Levy counties and we are still short of that mark at present, but next week is usually our biggest week so we are hoping the donations will rise.”

Wait served 20 years in the Marines, retiring as a major. He first became involved with Toys for Tots in Salt Lake City, Utah while still on active duty and pursuing a college degree in Sociology and Education. Upon retiring from the Marines, he became a teacher, relocating to the Gainesville area. He now teaches junior ROTC at Gainesville High School, during the day and from October to December spends much of his free time directing the local Toys for Tots program.

“We operate 100 percent on donations, service partners, and volunteers, all of which are comprised of local residents, businesses, and other organizations from within our community. But we also require help from the local community itself. We thrive solely on donations of toys, services and monetary gifts.

“Toys for Tots is a top-rated charity with over 97 percent of your monetary donations going to our mission of providing toys, books, and other gifts to less fortunate children,” Wait explained.

Monetary donations can be made online at the Toys for Tots local website: https://newberry-fl.toysfortots.org . The website also provides a list of local drop off sites for toy donations, a link to volunteer and the application for families to apply for assistance. Any toy donations should be new toys in the original package but unwrapped. Marine reservists and volunteers go to each drop off point to collect the toys.

For families in need of assistance for their children at Christmas, the website has an application form for them to fill out. “We have them apply so we can verify their address and need. We want to make sure that the toys go to kids that otherwise might not have a Christmas present,” Wait said. “Once we approve the application, the family is notified and can come to the new Alachua County Fairgrounds on Northwest 53rd Avenue near the Humane Society for pick up on Dec. 19 and 20.”

Wait says that each child will get a primary gift, three smaller gifts and stocking stuffers. For families, there are board games or sports equipment to help create family interaction as well as presents for the kids.

For those that would like to donate a toy or funds to help make a child's Christmas better, all drop off points listed on the website will continue to collect toys until the Dec. 18 deadline.

“It’s all about bringing joy and happiness to kids and helping families share the holiday together,” Wait said.

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HIGH SPRINGS ‒ Some 100 people gathered in High Springs on Dec. 6 to attend a ribbon cutting celebrating the opening of the new Springs County Welcome Center at 18725 N. Main Street. The facility will serve as the headquarters for a movement to separate much of western Alachua County into a new county.

According to Newberry City Commissioner Tim Marden, the idea began years ago but has regained traction lately. This increased interest is due in part to the pandemic and controversy over the issue of whether the Alachua County Commission has the authority to set rules for municipalities, including mandating masks and business openings.

Marden described the movement as a “political divorce” and much of its origins is based on conservative ideology including less government influence in communities and individual lives and fewer restrictions on business, with greater influence of churches and conservative organizations.

The main concerns for supporters of Springs County include limiting the size of government and maintaining freedom for individuals and businesses. Core services such as roads, fire, law enforcement, utilities and courts would be the focus of the new county government, while some social services and charity support would become the responsibility of individuals, families, businesses, civic groups and churches.

Springs County supporters need state legislative approval to see their plan to fruition, but, according to Marden, state law doesn’t provide a specific process for how to create a new county.

So far, around 7,500 residents from around the county have signed petitions to support the movement. The Alachua County Commission has made no mention of the movement at its meetings and no governing body in the municipalities that would be included in Springs County have offered support for the plan. However, many of the outlying towns feel under represented by the Alachua County Commission.

Originally the Springs County movement called for the elimination of property taxes to be replaced by a 6 percent sales tax and a gas tax for improving roads, although details were sparse. Marden has changed his position on that matter, with complete elimination unlikely as some property taxes are set by the state to cover schools and other state organizations.

In addition, state statutes limit the amount of sales tax a county can institute. “It’s a learning process with revisions as we try to finalize the details,” Marden said. “Much as some people would like, it's not something that is going to happen instantly. It’s a complex issue that will take time to refine to make it workable. Rushing it could lead to failure.”

The group is currently working on a plan as to how the new county will be funded. “Our plan now is to establish a physical presence with this welcome center and be able to provide information and education to both the public and the legislature over the next year.”

State Representative Chuck Clemons spoke at the Welcome Center opening, and according to Marden, Clemons is willing to file legislature in 2021 to be considered for a 2022 referendum to be placed on the ballot for a vote by affected residents. “If it [referendum] passes, we will take the next three years to work out all the details and state requirements with an expected launch date of 2025,” said Marden. “That gives us three years to stand up the systems needed in place.”

Marden says that reasons for the creation of Springs County are similar to the those that prompted the formation of Gilchrist County when it separated from Alachua County in 1925 and become the state’s 67th county.

The Welcome Center will serve as a home for Springs County efforts moving into the next phases complete with presentation space and board room. The building has been donated to the Springs County movement by the owner, who is only charging for utilities to help them raise funds for the movement. The Welcome Center offers merchandise such as clothing, drink cups and other products featuring the Springs County logo to help raise funds to support the movement.

The space will also be available for other organizations to hold meetings and conferences. According to Marden, the Welcome Center is not only an educational venue, but also represents Springs County supporters as part of the community. The Welcome Center is located in High Springs at 18725 Main Street.

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ALACHUA ‒ Christmas is a special holiday, a time of sharing and celebration, bringing families and communities together. Towns often hold special events and celebrations, bringing together large gatherings of the community, with the emphasis often on the children. One of the annual traditions is a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in the town square.

In Alachua, it has been an annual event that involved the entire downtown Main Street with a tree lighting, speeches, tables of treats provided by the City and the merchants, music. But the most important aspect is a visit from Santa, arriving in a white carriage rolling down Main Street with a police motorcycle escort as excited children line the curb and parents take photos with their cell phones.

In the carriage is Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus and two elves. Stopping by the tree, Santa would count down the tree lighting, then ride up to Alan Hitchcock Theater Park, where he took his seat in a special chair for the children to get a chance to tell him their Christmas wish list.

The year 2020 is different, and adjustments were made due to the pandemic. The City of Alachua, determined not to cancel the event and disappoint area children, opted instead to limit activity based on social distancing and safety guidelines. The goals of making it fun for the children and maintaining that magical feel that Christmas means to kids were foremost. Activities were limited to the Skinner Field park where the City’s Christmas tree is located. However, while no activities stretched down Main Street it was still colorfully lit for Christmas.

The entrance to the park was a lit gateway with a welcoming “Merry Christmas” on an arch over the doorway. Inside the park was the giant tree, waiting to be lit up and several tables manned by masked City employees and community groups giving out cookies and treats, all individually wrapped for safety and a photo booth supplied by Walgreens for free family photos.

This year there was no live music at the park or on Main Street as in previous years, but recorded Christmas music filled the air. There were fewer speakers this year with only Alachua Communication Director Mike DaRoza and City Manager Adam Boukari speaking briefly and introducing Alachua City Commissioners.

Before long, as in years past, with sirens wailing and lights flashing, Santa's white carriage came to Skinner Field and kids lined the curb for a chance to see him. As always, he led the countdown for the tree to be illuminated. But this year, due to Covid, there was no long line of excited youngsters waiting to sit on his lap. Before driving away, Santa also told the parents to keep their kids safe and stay informed.

The event created the magical feel of Christmas and a winter wonderland celebration as “snow” fell from the sky. Children thrilled to the surprise snowfall, which originated from a tree branch supporting a machine producing soapsuds that drifted to the ground. Though the event was smaller than previous years, it was a success, especially for providing a community-wide Christmas celebration for the children.

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