Editor’s note: This comprises Part I of our traditional year in review, as reported on the pages of the Alachua County Today newspaper from January through April. Topping headlines in 2011 were the usual election battles and a host of financial issues facing local cities as well as triumphs and tragedies and ongoing battles waged in the heartland communities.
The closing of Turkey Creek golf course, a visit by Florida Commissioner Of Agriculture Adam Putnam, renovations for an Alachua Chamber welcome center and local politics all made the headlines from January through April 2011.
The Alachua Chamber of Commerce started the year off with a little spring cleaning. In a Main Street building that most recently served as the Alachua Police Department and was originally built as a United States Post Office, the Chamber hopes to house its offices in the coming months. Chamber officials and a local organization teamed up to clean out the remnants of furniture and equipment left by the police department. The Chamber plans for the building to not only serve as its offices, but a welcome center and historical museum as well.
By a narrow margin, commissioners in Hawthorne agreed to pay out $26,370 to Ed Smyth, the city manager they fired just weeks earlier. The agreement to pay the severance called for in Smyth’s employment contract didn’t come without anxiety from some who questioned if the city had enough funds to make the payment.
Beef O’ Brady’s on Alachua’s Main Street shut its doors amid financial difficulties. The closing came just months after Ristorante Deneno, another Main Street restaurant, did the same thing. Owner of the local Beef O’ Brady’s, Dan McCann, said although the restaurant had many regular customers, the net gain simply did not add up enough to keep the Alachua location open. “We had some good moments when we were packed, but those moments weren’t enough to sustain us throughout the rest of the weeks and months,” he said.
Alachua commissioners unanimously approved an extension to Alachua City Manager Traci Cain’s employment contract during a January meeting. Cain’s previous contract began March 1, 2010 and was set to expire on Feb. 28, 2011. The new contract extended Cain’s employment to Sept. 30, 2014. The new timetable coincides with the city’s budget cycle and falls just after a performance evaluation of the city manager. In addition to the extension, other changes, mostly minor, were made to the terms of Cain’s employment. Her current salary of $111,500 annually did not increase as a result of the extension.
Commissioners in High Springs were hit with the news that due to declining city revenues over the preceding three years, the city’s water utility fund had been shrinking. The realization was based on an audit that revealed that if action wasn’t soon taken to correct the deficit, High Springs will be obligated to declare a state of financial emergency to the state auditor. The deficit was reportedly created when the city began seeing losses in water utility revenue as homes were foreclosed and its customer base shrank. With fewer households and businesses using city water, the fund failed to replenish itself. Simultaneously to those declines, the city had been making routine transfers from the water account for other budgetary needs, as had been done when the water fund was showing a profit. Because these transfers continued even when revenues dropped, the city is now facing a negative balance. The issue was first raised in 2010 as the city prepared to approve the budget for the current fiscal year, and the base rate for water was increased by about $3. The news that the fund was still shrinking meant that city officials were considering a base rate hike from $6 for the first 3,000 gallons used to $14.
The Hawthorne City Commission appointed Ellen Vause as the new interim city manager of Hawthorne in a meeting on Monday, Jan. 24. Vause was one of five candidates who were considered for the position. The remaining applicants were Cheryl Elmore, James Drumm, Linda Chapman and Lillian Hutchinson. Vause served on the mayor advisory panel from 2007 to 2008 and was also chair of the planning and zoning board for the City of Hawthorne. With an unbalanced budget, Hawthorne put a lot on Vause’s plate. Her salary was initially set at $800 per week with no benefits. Aside from her city involvement, Vause was previously the president of Florida Septic Inc., a local company in which Hawthorne Commissioner Surrency is also an employee. The company is now run by other members of the Vause family.
An advanced screening of the film “Sanctum” honored the late Wes Skiles – recognized as one of the world's foremost underwater explorers as well as a renowned photographer, diver and environmentalist from High Springs, Fla. The film was co-produced by Academy Award- winning executive producer James Cameron and was shown at Regal Royal Park Stadium 16 in Gainesville to a limited 238 ticket holders. The film brings back to life the true story of a 1988 incident in which 22 explorers were trapped underwater in Pannikin Plains, a dangerous cave system in the remote Nullarbor plain in south-central Australia. An unexpected rainstorm caused parts of the cave system they were diving in to collapse. Skiles was among those trapped. He and others survived that expedition, and Skiles went on to continue exploring and documenting dive sites around the world, until his untimely death last year.
A proposed plan to include a referendum on the 2012 ballot that would create a one-cent sales surtax for the purpose of roadway improvements garnered harsh criticism. During a two-hour-long county commission meeting held Feb. 1, few residents offered support for the referendum dubbed “Penny for Pavement.” The plan called for fund that would be dedicated to fixing and resurfacing roads. The planned referendum has slowly moved forward and as of December, county officials had already pitched the proposed surtax to several municipalities, seeking their support.
The Alachua City Commission enacted a 5-month moratorium that suspended all development applications concerning properties within 2,000 feet of the intersection of U.S. Highway 441 and Interstate 75. Exempted from the moratorium was the site of a proposed Walmart supercenter which fell largely within the 2,000-foot zone. City officials said the purpose of the moratorium was to allow the commission to create a Gateway Activity Center near the area. Alachua's Comprehensive Plan mandates that the city establish such a center in order to “welcome existing and future residents and visitors to the City of Alachua, and to promote Alachua as an attractive, vibrant, and economically prosperous community.” In August 2010, Alachua commissioners voted to move ahead with establishing and implementing the Gateway Activity Center when it approved an Evaluation and Appraisal Report (EAR), a state mandated planning document.
As the City of Alachua passed a 5-month moratorium on development near the Interstate 75, it came to light that a company running a chain of adult novelty stores had applied for permits to open in a retail location within the area. Lions Den Adult Superstores, a sexually oriented business, first submitted paperwork on Oct. 20, 2010 to open in the former Scultura building near Waffle House. The same building had been home to The Western Teepee, a western clothing store, for many years before it closed in 2005. According to City Manager Traci Cain, the application by Lions Den did not meet the regulation requirements to change the location from retail to a sex shop.
More than four months after a budget riddled with errors was passed by Hawthorne commissioners, the City was still without a balanced budget. State law mandates that all municipalities shall have approved a balanced budget before the start of the fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. Shortly after approving the 2010/11 budget, a Hawthorne resident and Alachua County Today reporters uncovered errors in it, which revealed that not only was the budget out of balance but that it would operate at a nearly $400,000 budget deficit if it weren’t corrected. Just weeks after signing on as the interim city manager, Ellen Vause promised to have a balanced budget ready for approval by the middle of March. By the end of March, no such budget had been approved.
On Feb. 10, High Springs finalized the requirements and procedures for granting ad-valorem tax exemptions to new and expanding businesses. The exemptions were the result of a referendum in which High Springs residents approved of offering industry incentives to locate in their city. For a business to be considered for an exemption, it must submit an application to the city, including a $500 fee to be paid only upon approval. Factors that determine whether the business will be granted an exemption, and for how much, include business type, how many local jobs it will offer initially and over time, as well as the pay rates for those positions.
Charles “Charlie” Morris, the man that helped lead the City of Alachua into some of its most prosperous years died Feb 18. He was 77 years old. Morris was first hired by the city in 1989 and was selected as City Manager in October 1992. He retired from the city in September 2000. It was during Morris’ later years as city manager that economic development in Alachua began to skyrocket, most notably with the building of a massive Dollar General distribution center. The more than one-million square-foot warehouse and distribution facility would become Morris’ and other city leaders’ legacy. It also paved the way for other similar projects in the city, which in total brought over 1,000 new jobs to Alachua. After retiring from the city manager position, Morris stayed close to home, becoming an Alachua area realtor. Morris was active in the Alachua Lion’s Club where he served as President for a term. Morris’ wife, Jane is a longtime teacher at Alachua Elementary.
During a week-long qualifying period, no one filed to run against Alachua Commissioner Ben Boukari, Jr. who previously ran for a vacated seat on the commission. Boukari was first elected to the commission in April 2010 after defeating challenger Michael Canney. Despite the win, there was only one remaining year in that vacated seat, meaning if Boukari wished to retain the seat in 2011, he would have to seek re-election. Without a challenger in 2011Boukari ran unopposed and, in May 2011, he was sworn in to a three-year term.
Turkey Creek Golf & Country Club sent waves of shock, sadness and uncertainty throughout Turkey Creek community and the city of Alachua on March 4 when management announced that the course would close at the end of the month. According to the announcement, economic factors forced the club, which opened in 1978, to close down. “It has been a struggle the past couple of years,” officials with the country club wrote in the announcement, which was e-mailed to members. The club attempted to increase membership in January 2010 by offering a “now or never” deal to residents of the roughly 1,200 homes surrounding the golf course. The total value of the property is currently estimated at just over $1.6 million by the Alachua County Property Appraiser. In 2006 and 2007, golf course owners sought and received approvals from the City of Alachua to rezone about 10 acres of land. The rezoning was intended to shore up the financial viability of the golf course, but much of that land has remained undeveloped. The driving ranges, pool, pro shop and tennis courts were also shut down March 31. The club also included a sports bar, Mulligan’s, and a catering service, Chef's Brothers. Chef's Brothers continues to lease kitchen space and the clubhouse, but Mulligan’s was shut down.
After months of contemplating a utility rate hike to cover declining revenues, the High Springs commission finally approved a measure. On March 10, commissioners voted 4-1 to raise the base water rate by $2 to $8.08 and increase the sewer base rate by 1.8 percent, taking it from $33.80 to $34.40 for residential users. Commissioner Dean Davis cast the dissenting vote.
In the works for the better part of the last five years, Walmart finally submitted site plans to the City of Alachua for consideration of its proposed supercenter store in the city. But, as it later turned out, those plans did not meet the city’s expectations and have since undergone more revisions. The site of the store falls along Interstate 75 just south of McDonald’s. The proposed store would be about 155,000 square feet and would include a drive-through pharmacy and garden center. The site plan, which uses about 37 acres, also includes a 34-space park and ride facility. The parking lot would include more than 600 parking spaces and will wrap around the sides of the building. The store will also have tenant space available for other retailers, but the tenants have yet to be determined. Several weeks after receiving the site plans, city officials sent them back to Walmart for additional changes. The final plans have not been submitted. After city staff and Walmart agree that the review is complete, it will be considered by the city’s Planning and Zoning board.
At its 72nd Annual Cattlemen’s Banquet, the Alachua Lions Club hosted recently-elected Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Adam Putnam. Serving as keynote speaker, Putnam also endured his fair share of roasting from longtime Lions Club member Ralph Cellon. Held at the Alachua Woman’s Club, the banquet brought together more than 300 people who were in a chorus of roaring laughter after listening to Cellon’s classic deadpan comedic style as he made jokes about dozens of friends and attendees. The 2011 banquet honored Polly Golden, who was presented with the distinguished Cattleman of the Year award for her 30 years of service to Florida’s cattle industry.
A bike rider participating in the Bike Florida 2011 and Share the Road campaign ride through North Central Florida died after being hit by a car in Newberry on March 30. Robert King, 65-year-old from Prescott, Az., was riding from Trenton to Newberry on State Road 26 a half-mile east of NW 298th Street when a 1999 Ford F-250 pickup truck driven by a 23-year-old Newberry resident. Leigh Matusick, president of Bike Florida, said it was the first fatality and first car-bicyclist accident in the event’s 18 years.
After a long six weeks of campaigning, the City of Newberry election ended on April 12 with a new mayor and two new commissioners elected to office. Bill Conrad, a former Commissioner of Group 4, won the mayoral seat with a total of 503 votes, to Harry Nichols’s 316 and Debbie Campbell’s 41. Winning Conrad’s former Group 4 seat was Robert Fillyaw with 644 votes, and Jordan Marlowe, who won the Group 5 seat with 526 votes.
Alachua officials deemed its popular Alan Hitchcock Theater Park on Main Street was a safety hazard. Three weeks after scaffolding blocking entrance to the park was installed, city commissioners voted to make structural modifications to the brick entryway. The proposal to make the repair was initially expected to cost about $32,000, but that was later revised upward to $40,000 as more structural faults were found. The modifications called for removing the top portion of the walls to reduce the wind load on the structure as a whole. The removal included the top 12 feet from the front wall and as much as six feet from the side walls. The repairs were funded by the city’s Downtown Redevelopment Trust Board's tax increment funds.
Residents living in three unincorporated areas surrounding Newberry overwhelmingly defeated a measure that would annex their properties into the City of Newberry. The referendum election that concluded on April 26 followed what was a nearly two-year process according to Newberry Planning Director Lowell Garrett. Of the 110 votes cast across the three referendums, 100 were against the annexations. In Annexation area 1, located along the Gilchrist County line, voters stood up 49 to 3 against the measure. Located in the northwestern most portion of Newberry, Annexation area 2 also failed with every one of the 21 votes cast, nixing the annexation. Annexation area 3, which runs across the north and south sides of State Road 26, east of Hitchcock’s Market was also defeated with 30 votes against and only seven in favor of the annexation.