It's been over 20 years since Stockton Whitten last lived in Alachua County, but he still remembers the small-town feel of the area.

The Alachua County Commission voted on Tuesday to begin negotiating a contract with Whitten, who is now the top pick for the position of county manager after the previous favorite, James Bourey of Greenville, S.C., withdrew himself from consideration.

Whitten has been the deputy county manager of Brevard County since late last year, and was an assistant county manager for 12 years before that.

People usually associate Brevard County with the John F. Kennedy Space Center, Whitten said, but there's another side to the area.

“What people don't realize about Brevard is that we have a lot of agricultural land," he said. "A lot of our industry is agriculture." Whitten said he's dealt with both rural and urban issues.

The topics important to small communities vary from place to place, he said, so the only way to address them is to listen.

"A good leader is a good listener," he said.

People outside of population centers and county seats can often feel marginalized, he added, and need to be considered when setting county-wide policy.

"We've dealt with people just feeling like they're ignored and not part of the county as a whole. You have to be able to understand their point of view."

Transportation, infrastructure and jobs are three major issues Whitten said he's dealt with in rural areas.

He studied at the University of Florida in 1990, receiving a Master of Arts with a certificate in public administration. Commissioner Susan Baird raised concerns about how Whitten represented his degree, which he described as a Master of Public Administration, a degree that UF does not offer. However, Alachua County Human Resources Manager Kim Baldry said that both degrees are functionally equivalent, and Master of Public Administration was a valid shorthand way for Whitten to describe his qualifications.

The County Commission debated at Tuesday's meeting whether to adopt a "take-it-or-leave-it" approach to negotiating a contract with Whitten.  

Commissioner Charles "Chuck" Chestnut IV took issue with amount of compensation the previous top candidate, Bourey, asked for in addition to his base salary.

"When we're going to give away the kitchen sink, I have some issues with that," he said.

The commission voted to offer Whitten the same contract that was offered to Bourey, a $160,000 base salary as part of a compensation package totaling $227,000.

Chestnut suggested that Whitten be given the chance to make a counteroffer, since the same opportunity was given to Bourey.

"You've got to give him the opportunity," he said. "What I don't want to happen is that this county be sued because we failed in our process to make it a fair process for all of the candidates."

Whitten said he hasn't really started communicating with the county over the details, but the job offer in Alachua County is his preferred choice for employment.

"It's an honor to be chosen," he said. "When I think of Alachua County, I think of nice towns and nice people."

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HIGH SPRINGS – The City of High Springs may get a rescue vehicle from the county following recommendations by the Fire Services Review Board. The board calls for the addition of a unit in High Springs and one in Alachua. If the recommendations are implemented, Unit 20, which is currently located near the dump between Alachua and High Springs will move to Alachua and Rescue 29 will be located in High Springs.

High Springs Fire Chief Bruce Gillingham confirmed that the county contacted him asking if he could house a rescue vehicle and two county employees at the newly renovated High Springs Fire Station. However, no further word or action has taken place since he indicated he could do so.

At the June 13 joint meeting of the High Springs City Commission and Alachua County Board of County Commissioners to be held in High Springs, Gillingham would like clarification of the county’s plans as the construction on the addition to his facility is drawing to a close. “An update would help me plan the use of the space better,” he said recently.

The plan also calls for four new rescue vehicles to go online in Alachua County. Recommended locations are Alachua, Newberry and Micanopy. Another was recommended for Gainesville's Station D, located at SW 24th Ave. and 100th St.

“The location of a rescue vehicle in the city would be welcomed,” said Gillingham. “The national average of medical-related emergency calls is about 80 percent of the total calls per year. We are running pretty close to that in High Springs.”

With call numbers for the High Springs station at approximately 1,250 last year, 80 percent would equal 1,000 calls that included medical emergencies. “About 750 of those calls were from citizens located in our city,” he explained.

Gillingham said also that backup units for High Springs are presently coming from Jonesville and Gainesville, near the Highway Patrol Station on U.S. Highway 441. “It takes a bit longer for backup units to get to us from those locations. Having a unit in the city would drastically reduce response time.”

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The Priest Theatre has reached their fundraising goal, which will allow equipment upgrades from film to digital projection in order to keep the theatre operational.

HIGH SPRINGS – On May 30, 2013, High Springs Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) members authorized $40,000 to be used by Priest Theatre owners Alan and Janet Alligood solely on exterior and foundation improvements for the historic theatre building.

Alachua County provides a pass-through of tax dollars from the downtown district’s collected taxes to the CRA to fix or improve deteriorating portions of the downtown district. This year the CRA has chosen to help improve the front of the Priest Theatre, a historic structure built in 1914 by W.A. Priest at 15 NW 1st Street.

According to Janet Alligood, the building is historically significant because it is the only one built during the early days of the city that has been continually used for the purpose it was built.

“People have come all the way from Gainesville to visit our theatre,” explained Janet Alligood. Neighboring towns also are served by the theatre and some business owners believe the theatre is a High Springs visitor’s attraction.

The CRA’s decision to provide funds for the structure and building façade is good news for the 437 backers who pledged $87,472 to help pay for the required equipment upgrade from film to digital projection in order to keep the theatre operational.

The industry-wide requirement began a 60-day fundraising effort by High Springs citizens to raise $85,000 to help pay for the new equipment. As of June 3, 2013, the end of the 60-day pledge drive, the goal was exceeded by $2,472.

The CRA’s decision at this time means that the required improvements to the building will now be completed in time to secure the investment in the required new equipment. The current condition of the 100-year-old structure allows moisture into the building. Digital equipment providers have told the Alligoods that their equipment will be severely compromised if the structure is not repaired before the new equipment is installed.

Board members applauded the couple for their determination to raise funds to pay for the required digital projection equipment inside the building. During the meeting, which occurred prior to meeting their goal, the Alligoods vowed that if their $85,000 goal for the new equipment was not met, they would come up with the additional funds themselves.

Alan Alligood estimated the outside improvements the CRA was funding would be completed before the end of the year.

Also during the meeting Vice-Chair Sue Weller presented a list of several additional projects the board could consider completing within the next three years, which met the requirements for CRA funding. Among the items identified to research further was the possible purchase or rental of the train station building as a site for the train museum. City Manager Ed Booth is to look into the issue further to determine if the building is a viable option and its condition.

Additional parking, sidewalk repairs, building facades and a billboard on I-75 were also listed for consideration. Weller asked the board members to review the list prior to the next meeting, which is scheduled for June 18, 2013, at 6:30 p.m. She asked that Booth attach realistic costs to each project to help the board determine how to allocate the CRA funds for the next three years.

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ALACHUA – The Alachua-based company RTI Biologics is acquiring a Michigan-based manufacturer of surgical implants.

RTI, which provides orthopedic and biologic implants, announced Wednesday it was buying all the outstanding stock of Pioneer Surgical Technology, a company from Marquette, Mich.

“We believe the combination of Pioneer and RTI will be a catalyst for continued growth,” said Daniel Webber, Pioneer’s president and chief executive officer

RTI will be paying $130 million in cash to acquire Pioneer, and expects the deal to be finalized by late this year.

Representatives from both companies have been positive about the purchase

“The combination of RTI and Pioneer is an exciting opportunity for both companies and their employees,” said Brian K. Hutchison, RTI president and chief executive officer.

The company's combined quarters will continue to be based in the city of Alachua, and RTI expects it to continue to grow and thrive in the city, employing about 1,100 people. The company will decide on a new name to reflect its expanding portfolio. In addition to the headquarters, it will have manufacturing plants in the United States, Germany and the Netherlands.

Representatives of RTI were not able to comment directly on the impact the acquisition would have on the city in terms of job growth and economic stimulus, but did give assurance that the company would continue to expand and become more profitable.

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W - Therapy Horses Briarwood Student 2 copyTherapy horse Magic reads with Taylor Kimmel, a tornado survivor from Briarwood Elementary School in Moore, OK. Taylor's father Toby Kimmel was driving to the school to pick up his first grader when he saw the tornado destroy the school.

HIGH SPRINGS – Debbie and Jorge Garcia-Bengochea and their troop of three therapy horses narrowly escaped the onslaught of five tornadoes heading toward Oklahoma City and Moore, Okla. on Friday, May 31, 2013.

The group was in Moore visiting with children who had been in schools hit by the devastating May 20, 2013, category EF5 tornado with wind speeds of 200-210 mph. The Gentle Carousel Horses had been asked by hospital personnel and affected families to come to Moore to visit with some of the children.

With at least five more tornadoes building in the area, the Garcia-Bengocheas evacuated their horses in a successful attempt to outrun the building storms. Debbie Garcia-Bengochea, a former school principal, said in a telephone interview, “The place where the horses were staying and the surrounding area were destroyed. We had to evacuate with the horses in front of the storm because it was too dangerous to stay any longer.”

They left the area just in time as the tornadoes hit the hotel they were staying in about 30 minutes after they fled. “With five tornadoes going at the same time, it was hard to know which way to go,” she said. “We knew we couldn’t stay at the hotel after checking with hotel management and hearing they had no safe area or emergency plan. They just had people pull mattresses into the hallway to cover up,” she said. The hotel was badly damaged when they returned to Moore after the tornadoes had passed.

With all the devastation, hotels and churches that were left standing were housing children during the day. “We met with them [children] wherever there was a safe place they were staying in for the day,” she said.

The couple stayed until late Saturday night, June 1, 2013. They loaded the horses in the trailer and arrived at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. Monday. Tuesday the horses rested and exercised at a Nashville farm. On Wednesday, June 5, the horses visited children at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, Nashville, Tenn.

The group is currently en route back home to High Springs.

“This was another unplanned trip for the Gentle Carousel Horses,” said Debbie Garcia-Bengochea. “After receiving several phone calls and requests by the people in Moore, we just couldn’t not go,” she said. “There was no time to raise money for the trip, so we’re operating in the red again.” This is a situation the group finds themselves in almost monthly.

Following the Sandy Hook/Newtown, Conn., trip earlier this year, the couple worked with counselors to create a book called, “Magic Loves Me” with photos of the horses which were taken by the couple. They have used the book to work with children who desperately need to heal and have found it quite helpful. All of the children want to keep the book, but the couple hasn’t had the money to get the book published. They have the only copy.

They estimate the cost of publishing the book at $5,000, but would not be able to recoup the cost if they gave the books away to the children, which is what they would like to be able to do. They desperately need local and national sponsors to help them continue the work they have been doing with children.

Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses is an all volunteer 501(c)(3) nonprofit charity. The teams of 32 miniature therapy horses visit over 20,000 children and adults each year inside hospitals, hospice and assisted living programs, libraries and schools programs for at-risk readers.

Anyone wishing to learn more about the program or donate to the organization can contact them on their Facebook page at

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Political talk radio show “Talk of the Town” with hosts Jake Fuller and Ward Scott debuted Monday on internet radio airing from the Ozean Media studio in downtown Alachua.

ALACHUA – Ozean Media is looking for Alachua County residents with something interesting to say and an opinion to share.

After Talk of the Town, the radio show on 99.5 FM hosted by Jake Fuller and Ward Scott was cancelled last Thursday, Ozean Media, the advertising agency specializing in politics gave the duo a new home by starting an internet radio station called AlachuaTalks. The station’s manager hopes to grow it into a community-oriented hub focusing on local news and issues, and said anybody in the community has the potential to get a program on air.

“We have two requirements,” said Alex Patton, producer and manager. “Be interesting and have a point of view.”

AlachuaTalks will eventually have features that cater to a wide local audience with differing opinions, complete with its own message board, Patton said.

“We want to build it out into a community digital station,” he said.

Fuller and Scott, the latter of which became co-host after Ed Braddy quit the show to run for Gainesville mayor in January, had to look for a new home for their conservative show when JVC Media of Long Island, N.Y. bought 99.5 FM and changed formats. Under the former ownership, the station focused on local politics and news.

The new owners told the pair they would probably not have a show come Monday, Fuller said. Halfway through their last broadcast on Thursday, the incoming management cut the show off after Fuller said the new owners didn’t understand the local community.

By Monday, Ozean Media had already launched the AlachuaTalks station and “Talk of the Town” had its first show on internet radio. The Amazon server that hosted the program crashed, Patton said.

Alex Patton put the whole thing together, Fuller said. “If it were up to Ward and me, we would be using tin cans and strings.”

Now, “Talk of the Town” is the flagship program of AlachuaTalks, Patton said.

An advantage of internet radio under Ozean Media is the lack of outside restraint over content, Scott said.

“This is all about control for us,” he noted. Scott said he recently encountered problems airing criticisms of the Nations Park baseball complex in Newberry because a member of the Gainesville Sports Commission supporting the park was his station manager.

“We’re the bosses here,” he said.

Though “Talk of the Town” is conservative in nature, Patton said he encourages multiple opinions and open debate.

“Debate leads to a better community,” he said.

Scott agreed, adding the lack of an open dialogue results in bad ideas going unchallenged.

Alachua County Today has plans to partner with AlachuaTalks. The two companies would cross promote one another, and Alachua County Today would be the station’s news partner.

The station could be considered an experiment, said Ward, who used to teach English as a professor at Santa Fe College. If the station reaches its goal of attracting a multitude of competing opinions, it could be a learning experience for everyone in Alachua County, he added.

“I view this whole thing as one big classroom.”

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 Photo by SCOTT ROBERTSON special to Alachua County Today

 Santa Fe High School’s Dean of Students, Loretta Shane, receives congratulations from her sister, Ginny Shane, as she retires after 37 years of coaching girl’s athletics programs at the school.

ALACHUA – When Santa Fe High School’s Dean of Students, Loretta Shane, 62, was guiding students up to the stage during her school’s graduation ceremony last Saturday evening, she saw six seniors from a golf team she coaches and got hit with a flurry of emotions.

After 37 years of coaching girl’s athletics programs at Santa Fe High School, last weekend’s graduation ceremony marked Loretta Shane’s last day before retiring.

“I'm going to miss the quirky things that happen all the time here,” she said.

Shane started out as a teacher and coach, and has been dean for 17 years. She started off coaching volleyball and softball, but she eventually oversaw the expansion of girl’s athletics at the school that would encompass much more.  

When Shane started at Santa Fe, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which gave girls equal opportunity to participate in sports, was still fairly recent. Even with Title IX, Shane said it was still a struggle for her teams to get respect.

“I had to fight the battles to get equal access to the facilities for the girls,” she said. “I was coaching the varsity girl’s softball team, and somebody came out and sent the message that the girls needed to get off the field so the junior varsity boys could practice.”

“It’s night and day compared to now,” Shane said. “Girls playing sports has become so common.” Funding and opportunity for girls in sports is on equal footing now, she said.

This might be the end of her time at Santa Fe, but Shane said it wasn’t necessarily the last time she would be a mentor.  

“I hope I'm remembered for what I’m going to do, and not what I did,” she said. She plans on taking about six months to figure out what she wants to do with her post-retirement life, but she mentioned the idea of volunteering her time to mentor kids in both sports and academics and participate in fundraisers for after-school programs.

Over the last 37 years, the school has changed drastically, Shane noted. She has seen the school grow in the number of students and expand its academic and athletic programs.

On graduation day last Saturday at 6 p.m., she guided students to the stage of the Stephen O’Connell Center at the University of Florida. Santa Fe High School used to hold graduation ceremonies on its own football field, but there are so many students the school now holds it there.

“We’re now small enough that kids don’t get lost in the shuffle, but big enough to offer diverse programs.”

Since she started working for the school, Shane has been present at all but one of the graduation ceremonies.

In her career, she said she has probably coached about 70 teams.

“My favorite memory, it happened recently” Shane said. “I was standing on the sidelines watching my ex-players coach their kids in volleyball.”

“Everything has kind of come full circle.”

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