ALACHUA – Only 14 complaints came into the call center for the Gainesville Renewable Energy Center (GREC) biomass plant in the last month, causing local officials to suggest shutting it down.

Since the biomass plant went online last August, residents of the Turkey Creek neighborhood in Alachua have been vocal about issues with noise from the plant. A high volume of calls were coming in to the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office, the Alachua Police Department and the Gainesville Police Department, prompting a panel of local leaders to establish the call center, paid for by Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU).

Since the center was set up in November, it has received about 250 calls in total. It cost GRU about $3,000 to establish, according to the organization.

The reduction in complaints over the last couple of months could be due to noise-dampening panels GREC installed in December in the facility’s stacks.

GRU sent out a press release last week, announcing local government agencies recommend shutting down the call center. Concerns related to the biomass plant should be reported directly to GREC, according to GRU.

In the weeks and months after the biomass plant went online, Alachua City Commission meetings were filled with citizens complaining about the noise. At the Sept. 23 meeting, around three dozen people came to voice concerns.

The commission sent out letters to several officials, including county commissioners, city commissioners, the county manager, state legislators and U.S. senators.

Alachua City Commissioner Robert Wilford, who lives in Turkey Creek, said the noise situation has dramatically improved since December.

“The noise has not been bad at all in the last two months,” he said.

His wife, Dianne, agreed, saying the noise-dampening panels helped.

“We have noticed here in our particular part of Turkey Creek where that has helped tremendously,” she said.

Some residents closer to the plant still complain, though, she said.

Robert Wilford had been outspoken about the biomass plant since the issues arose, but he did so as a citizen, not as a commissioner, he clarified.

During the height of the controversy, he wrote an email to several local officials expressing his dissatisfaction.

“I realize that you are being bombarded with a plethora of complaints regarding GREC's operations. Being brutally candid, based on the manner in which GREC is failing to address the many valid concerns being expressed by residents of the Turkey Creek, Brooke Pointe and Staghorn subdivisions, residents of the Town of Hague, residents of the manufactured home subdivision located across from the Turkey Creek subdivision, and also some residents of non-incorporated Alachua County who live close to the center, you and the management of GREC have ignominiously earned the wrath of the many individuals and families who are being continually and adversely impacted by your center's questionable operations and the obvious lack of regard for our individual rights,” he wrote.

Not all the complaints directed to the biomass plant were about noise. Several complained about dust pollution.

Employees of the nearby Alachua County Public Works Department compound complained about irritated eyes, noses and throats, as well as breathing issues.

People are still talking about the dust particulates, Robert Wilford said. Wilford has chronic bronchitis, a condition he worried would be exacerbated by the dust, he said in an earlier interview with Alachua County Today.  

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HAWTHORNE – In her 23 years at Hawthorne Middle and High School, Alta Johnson has provided a lot of students with many of the ‘firsts’ in their lives.

Johnson, the student services specialist and a graduate of the school, has given many students the opportunity to take their first plane ride, take part in their first professional sporting event and even to leave the Hawthorne city limits for the first time.

And thanks to her help, many students at Hawthorne have become the first in their families to attend college.

“She’s been personally responsible for helping many of our students apply to college, and when they’re accepted, has helped them find the funds they need to fulfill their college dreams,” said Hawthorne principal Libby Hartwell.

That commitment to students is the key reason Johnson was named Alachua County’s School Related Employee of the Year for 2014. She will now go on to represent the district in the Florida awards program.

“I was very surprised,” Johnson said of her selection. “It’s something I never expected. I just do what I need to do.”

Her job is to oversee students in the in-school suspension program, which means ensuring that students who have been removed from their regular classes are keeping up with their schoolwork. She’s also the school’s health and wellness coordinator, developing and implementing health-related programs and education for students and staff. She serves as the school’s activities director, which means she’s responsible for coordinating all extra-curricular activities and other events that take place at school. During her tenure at Hawthorne, Johnson has also coached a number of sports, and is currently coaching the middle school boys’ basketball team.

But much of what Johnson does for students falls outside her job description. She’s taken on the role of mentor for many Hawthorne students, monitoring their academic progress and keeping them on track for college. As they get older, she helps them navigate the college application process, and helps them get scholarships and financial aid. She’s even taken students on trips to college campuses in and out of Florida, often dipping into her own pocket to make it happen.

“When I was growing up, my parents pushed the idea of going to college, so I want to push my students to take that next step,” Johnson said.

She’s also taken groups of students to professional sporting events, such as a trip to Orlando last year to watch the Orlando Magic play. She even arranged for them to meet some of the players.

“I want to expose them to different experiences,” she said. “A lot of these kids don’t get the chance to do things like that. I want them to see what’s going on outside their community.”

Johnson and the other 49 Alachua County Public School employees named School Related Employees of the Year for their schools and websites will all be honored at a special ceremony in early May. At that event, each will be presented with a check for $110 to represent the fact that they give 110 percent to their work. Private donations will cover the cost of the awards. Anyone interested in contributing to the School Related Employee of the Year program can contact The Education Foundation for Alachua County Public Schools at 352- 955-7003.

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Photo special to Alachua County Today

Haylee Miller jumping rope at last year's event. Jump Rope for
Heart aims to encourage a healthy lifestyle.

ALACHUA – Irby Elementary is thinking about hearts this Valentine’s Day.

Irby Elementary School is holding its annual Jump Rope for Heart fundraiser next week.

If weather permits, the event, a school wide fundraiser, will be from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. in the bus loop of the school on Wednesday, Feb. 12.

“We are going old-school this year,” said Aimee Pricher, co-coordinator of the event. Instead of using the cafeteria, the school will be jumping rope in the U-shaped bus loop. If it is raining, they will reschedule to Thursday morning, Feb. 13.

This year will be the 38th anniversary of the American Heart Association, and the event is designed to raise money for the organization’s cause, as well as to educate children.

Jump Rope for Heart is aimed not only to raise money, but to promote healthy habits.

“It’s a chance for kids to help themselves by getting healthy, and help others by raising money and awareness,” said Ray Crone, physical education teacher and co-coordinator of the event.

The event aims to promote health awareness within the family and the community of Alachua. Crone is educating his students to live a healthy lifestyle with good food, exercise and adequate sleep. He hopes this will carry the students into adulthood and to practice with their families.

“It’s had a really positive impact. Irby has been jumping for nearly 20 years,” Crone said. This is his 13th year handling the event.

The event also raises money for the school. For every $2,000 raised, the school will receive vouchers from the American Heart Association in order to pay for equipment and rump ropes to promote healthy living.

The event is expected to have 650 to 700 people jumping rope, and the aim is to raise around $8,000 for the cause. Last year’s event made $7,500.

“It’s a tradition, and it’s doing justice at this school,” Crone said.

The American Heart Association is giving out plastic golf-ball-sized ducks as an incentive for raising funds. They have ninja ducks, glowing ducks and striped ducks. Ducks will be given out for every $5, $15, $35 and $75 raised.

“The kids are really excited about the ducks. My last class wouldn’t stop talking about them,” Crone said.

Crone has a series of warm-ups and activities for the kids to do for the occasion. He has also been playing videos for the kids from the American Heart Association, which educates children on sick hearts and ways to live healthier. He has been incorporating these lessons into his physical education classes at the school.

“It’s a culminating event,” Pricher said.

There will also be individual jump-ropers, small groups and big groups during the event, so everyone can join in.

“The entire school participates at the same time. It’s unique,” Pricher said.

Everybody gets involved, Pricher said. “Everybody does a little bit of everything,” she said.

“It’s just a really feel good event.”

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ALACHUA –The Alachua Police Department (APD) received a grant to purchase riot gear.

The APD got $1,607 from the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant through the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) for riot shields and helmets.

The Alachua City Commission approved the grant at their Monday, Feb. 10 meeting.

It’s better to have the gear and not need it than need it and not have it, said Jesse Sandusky, public information officer for the APD.

“We’re not expecting anything to happen, but it is equipment we have that we wouldn’t normally be able to afford,” he said. “You have to be prepared.”

The Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant was set up by the DoJ in honor of a New York police officer who was killed on the job. The grant helps agencies get necessary equipment and pay officers overtime for operations they are conducting, Sandusky said.

Funds from the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant will also help the APD purchase four radar units. The money approved by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, through which the funds are channeled, totaled $12,944.

The radars will be equipped in police cars to track speeders, Sandusky said. Currently, there aren’t enough to go around and equip every car in the fleet with one.

The funds come from the federal government and are funneled through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which then allocates it throughout Florida’s counties, according to an email sent by Alachua Assistant City Manager Adam Boukari.

Several agencies throughout the state will get funding for their law enforcement needs, Sandusky said. Without the money, it would be difficult for some smaller departments to stay fully equipped.

“Things become more expensive every year,” he said.

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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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W - BREEDLOVE 2 - DSC 0972

Alachua County Today file photo

Breedlove showing off an imaging machine in a shared laboratory at the Sid Martin Incubator. She was named Innovator of the Year by the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce.

ALACHUA – Her name is Patti Breedlove, and from the moment she began running the Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator in Alachua, she exuded excellence and professionalism. This is just some of what Alachua Mayor Gib Coerper said following the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce’s annual banquet last Thursday, Jan. 30.

The chamber formally recognized Breedlove for her work running the incubator last week, naming her the Innovator of the Year.  

“Alachua is very proud of her and the job she has done from day one in running the incubator,” Coerper said.

The mayor said he and the City of Alachua have retained a close relationship with the Gainesville Area Chamber for years now.

“She was chosen for this award, for running the number one incubator in the world,” Coerper said.

The Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator was chosen as the world’s best in 2013 by Sweden-based research group UBI.

Breedlove arrived at Progress Park in 1998, working her way up to from a junior role, she said. She said she is proud to be the director now, and notes this as one of her highest honors to date.

“It was truly a thrill,” said Breedlove about the award.

The incubator boasts several successful businesses, including AxoGen and Nanotherapeutics. The award shows that the contributions made toward the success of these and other companies in the incubator have been recognized, Breedlove said.

Perhaps the most successful company to come out of the incubator is RTI Surgical, formerly RTI Biologics, Breedlove said.

“RTI is UF’s most successful spinout, with UF making over $60 million after RTI went public,” she said.

The company is now the largest in Progress Park, and continues to grow still. There are only about 500 of their employees who currently work in the park, but they have many others now in other locations, she said.

“To me, it will be a tremendous mark of success if some of our graduate companies grow to have the type of economic impact on our community that RTI has had,” Breedlove said.

Deborah Bowie, vice president of chamber development for the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce, praised Breedlove’s work.

“The award that Patti received is in recognition of her career work, as well as her outstanding efforts with the incubator,” Bowie said.

With the incubator being ranked as the best in the world, Bowie said the board met to discuss possible candidates for this honor, and Breedlove was “a resounding yes.”

“Patti’s work has singlehandedly led to international recognition,” Bowie said. “She embodies the spirit of innovation.”

While Breedlove downplays her individual role in accomplishing all of this, she said she does understand her importance to the success she and the incubator strive for.

“My most important role has probably been establishing a culture of professionalism and mutual respect,” she said.

It is a fine line in providing a helping hand in the development of these young companies, and allowing them to also experience their own progress and failure required to find absolute success, Breedlove said.

“I’m very proud of our team,” she said. “They work hard, listen to each other and never forget that we’re here to help our companies make a real difference in this world.”

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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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