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The contestants in this race consisted of bright yellow floating ducks making their way along Camp Kulaqua’s lazy river to the finish line at the 5th Annual High Springs Rotary Duck Race.

HIGH SPRINGS – The 5th Annual High Springs Rotary Duck Race held at Camp Kulaqua on Sunday, May 5, started off with a chilling splash. After a daring and mighty plunge down the slide of the Lazy River and just shy of two laps, the bobbing ducks rounded the final bend. The first three quackers plucked from the crystal clear water by Club President Valorie Cason, Past President Heather Clarich and new club member Laurie Roder were the winners.

The $300 first place prize went to Jerry Kiernan; the $100 second place prize went to Dave Moxley of Gainesville and the $50 third place prize went to George Rafferty, also of Gainesville.

The duck race was a community event, with area youngsters purchasing and decorating white ducks, club members helping conduct the race, the Santa Fe High School Interact Club participating, and Camp Kulaqua hosting the event.

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The highlight of the 68th Annual Newberry Watermelon Festival was crowning of Kyndal VanAernam, center, as the 2013 Newberry Watermelon Queen.

NEWBERRY – Free melon slices, food and craft vendors and bounce houses were all to be found at the 68th Annual Newberry Watermelon Festival. The field at Destiny Church was full of cars and the people attending had plenty to keep them busy. The day began with a parade through downtown with pageant queens and contestants leading the way. Old tractors, trucks, floats and cars were all seen as the parade made its way down the street ending at Triangle Park.

K-Country’s Lewis Stokes and Mark Copeland entertained the crowd with music and their own brand of humor. Hog calling by Sierra Crosswhite and Jordan Marlowe started the entertainment and they ended up calling the Back Yard BBQ pig on the stage. From there it was seed spitting, melon rolling and music. The 68th Newberry Watermelon Queen, Kyndal VanAernam, was crowned, and for the third year Mayor Conrad led off the auction. Watermelon themed items sold quickly as the bidders tried to get their favorite items.

A quick ride around the field is all it took for an opportunity to taste candied jalapenos and a funnel cake, purchase a watermelon necklace and earrings and see youngsters bungee jumping high in the sky, sliding on the inflatables and having a great time.

A huge tent was set up with tables and chairs for a resting and eating area out of the heat of the sun, and one tent was in front of the entertainment and stage area. The festival committee was responsible for the layout, which was workable for everyone. Scott and Kateara Stoner and Paul Paisley and Tim Marden all worked to serve melon slices to everyone who wanted a taste of a genuine Florida melon. Local resident Kathi Thomas said there were so many people involved in helping that she would be afraid to start naming names, but the sponsors and the City were all a big help in coordinating the community event.

A comical moment happened during the seed spitting contest. It became evident fairly early that a seed spitting contest and seedless melons are not a winning combination. This was discovered as the contest began and seeded melons were located so the seed spitting did go on.

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HIGH SPRINGS – During the May 9, 2013 regular commission meeting, High Springs City Manager Ed Booth proposed adding nearly $200,000 to the current year’s budget.

Revenues and expenditures were originally set at $3,213,660 late last year as commissioners tried to eek out a balanced budget. Since that time, Booth has located untapped financial resources and hopes to change the original budgeted amount to $3,409,915, an increase of $196,255.

Booth said that additional revenues are being derived from the Clay Electric Cooperative Agreement and increased revenues in the Building Department along with increased revenue from taxes.

Commissioners approved Ordinance 2013-04 on first reading during the meeting. After reviewing the proposed changes, commissioners will address questions during a workshop at 6:30 p.m. on May 16, 2013.

Booth said he added a few items into the budget based on commissioners’ comments. He increased the amount set aside for attorney’s fees by $20,000 and also set aside $10,000 for playground repairs, add necessary cover to the ground and upgrade the facilities if there is money still unspent in that budget item. Booth added that he would budget $10,000 every year to maintain those facilities and upgrade where needed.

Another suggestion was to add in salary for a recreation director. Booth said he would include that in next year’s budget and possibly start out with a part-time recreation director at that time. The issue will be discussed further with the Recreation Board and reviewed as part of next year’s budget, he said.

The item will come before the full commission once again for a public hearing and consideration of final approval at the June 13 regular commission meeting.

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HIGH SPRINGS – High Springs is experiencing an upward trend in construction starts this year. One telling indication is the increase in residential home building permits, which have jumped to 21 permits issued in the first five months of the year, surpassing permits issued for all of 2012, which stood at 18.

Another indication is the increase in building permit fees collected for additions and remodeling, which have skyrocketed from the 2011/2012 budget year amount of $45,080 to the current year-to-date amount of $97,773.

Recent enforcement of occupational license fees for businesses based in the city have also increased revenues this calendar year by an additional $1,314.

“While business licensing was previously required, it had not been enforced for some time,” said High Springs City Manager Ed Booth. “These are companies that perform services in the city like lawn maintenance, but never obtained an occupational license to operate in our city.”

City Hall records show that approximately 80 new business licenses have been issued this year to companies working within the city limits of High Springs.

As all of these funds have increased, so have the possibilities for more building construction permits. Booth is optimistic about the future as he talks about a planned expansion of Plantation Oaks and the addition of 90 units in three new buildings at Camp Kulaqua.

In a recent interview Booth said, “I am in constant contact with the people at Plantation Oaks and Camp Kulaqua. I anticipate applications will be coming into our office soon. However, with the money that has already been brought in for permits to do smaller jobs, like remodeling or additions to existing structures, plus the addition of business license fees, we have already taken in more than the amount of money originally budgeted for the Building Department.”

While neither Plantation Oaks nor Camp Kulaqua has submitted their application, the City has told representatives at Plantation Oaks that they must apply for and receive a variance prior to submittal of a request for a building permit. Camp Kulaqua is currently in the process of land clearing for construction, which does not require a permit from the City.

The City of High Springs may be working its way out of the same financial difficulties that have impacted many municipalities over the past several years. “Increased housing starts and commercial improvements to existing large properties will certainly help along the way,” said Booth.

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The latest innovations in biotechnology were on display for the over 500 people, including this youngster, who joined in the annual celebration.

ALACHUA – Thursday marked the 10th Annual BioFlorida Celebration of Biotechnology. The high tech event took place May 9, at RTI Biologics in Alachua’s Progress Corporate Park on U.S. Highway 441.

Once visitors entered the huge tented area, they were face-to-face with the latest innovations in biotechnology. Over 500 people passed between the rows of over 70 scientific vendors displaying their products and services.

Visitors to the high-tech celebration could also hop aboard a bus for a tour of the research park, which houses biotechnology companies and UF’s Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator and its resident companies, which include Pasteuria Science, AxoGen, Banyan Biomarkers and Applied Food Technologies, among others.

The Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator was recently selected as the 2013 Incubator of the Year by the National Business Incubation Association, out of a field of 7,000 contenders worldwide. The Incubator provides lab space, greenhouses and fermentation facilities to its member companies.

Also this year, Jim Talton, CEO of Nanotherapeutics, which is located in the park, spoke about his company which recently was awarded a U.S. Department of Defense contract in an amount up to $360 million to develop medical countermeasures, including the development and manufacture of drugs and vaccines to combat bioterrorism.

Nearly 1,200 people now work in Progress Corporate Park, and of the more than 30 businesses located there, two-thirds are bioscience or technology companies.

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NEWBERRY – The Newberry City Commission will be discussing upcoming programming for the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, which will be up and running in several weeks.

The city’s recreation department presented options to the commission to expand the scope of its involvement at the community center. And other organizations have been asked to submit proposals if they would like to be included in the center’s operation, said Commissioner Alena Lawson.

Pastor Lewis King, who brought youngsters to the commission meeting May 13 to give them a firsthand look at local government, said the building’s construction is not the community’s concern.

“We want to make sure the commission gives us clear directions on what’s going to be happening in the building so we as citizens would know who will be operating it,” King said.

One forthcoming decision will be whether volunteers or part-time employees run the center.

“In July the kids will be out of school, and we want programs going on to keep them entertained and keep them from being mischievous while also providing them an opportunity to learn,” King said.

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Newberry’s Nations Park, which officially opened in March, boasts 16 baseball stadiums and will host a week-long tournament in July.

NEWBERRY - It was built to put Newberry in the tourism big-leagues, but snags have cast doubts about whether it will work.

Nations Park, 25325 SW 15th Avenue, had its grand opening in Newberry in late March. The giant facility hosts 16 baseball stadiums for young athletes from all around the country. About four years in the making, it was meant to attract tourism dollars to the area. With its managers hoping to eventually expand it to a 32-stadium complex, the park, owned by the City of Newberry, seems to be an ambitious idea, but controversies, delays in opening and a slow start have raised questions about whether it can get teams and spectators to play ball.

Lou Presutti, founder of Cooperstown Dreams Park in upstate New York, and the City of Newberry, with financial help from the Alachua County Tourism Development Council collaborated on the project. The Davis family donated the land for the park. In order to pay for it, the Board of County Commissioners raised the Alachua County tourist development tax from 3 percent to 5 percent. Half of the increase, about $7 million, funded the construction of the park. Another $700,000 was provided by the State of Florida in the form of a grant. The tax is a charge on staying at a hotel.

Using tax revenue from hotels makes sense, said Roland Loog, director of Visit Gainesville, a marketing organization for tourism in Alachua County.   The park is projected to bring in more tourists, meaning more people needing a place to sleep.

“This was done to create economic impact,” he said.

There could be some issues with the relationship between the hotels and the park, however.

Lou Presutti tells the teams that sign up they have to stay in one of the seven approved hotels, said Bill Conrad, mayor of Newberry. The Nations Park website says players and their families must stay at one of these hotels. Those hotels have agreed to give him $25 out of every night, Conrad said. If they don't pay, Presutti will remove the hotel from the list.

This practice is legal and happens all the time in the hotel industry, said Richard Blalock, the recreation director for Newberry who has connections with Presutti. Blalock was instrumental in bringing plans for Nations Park into fruition, said Visit Gainesville's Loog.

The complex was originally supposed to open last year, but the discovery of endangered gopher tortoises in 2011 temporarily halted construction, delaying the opening, said Keith Ashby, city manager for Newberry.

Despite having the grand opening on March 23, that wasn't this park's first ballgame. Trial tournaments were held last summer to make sure the facilities lights, toilets and other fixtures were working.

During those trial tournaments, parents complained about being seated in a poorly ventilated area near the outfield.

“That was to eliminate some of the problems that come along with youth sports, such as parents getting too aggressive,” said Newberry recreation director Blalock. “We don't want parents trying to coach the kids.”

These issues were addressed by lowering a wall that separates the bleachers from the field, allowing parents to sit closer and get better airflow, Blalock said.

When the park officially opened, the debut tournament was disappointing, said Mayor Conrad.

“By last Christmas, only about 20 teams signed up.” By the time the event happened, there were 40 teams participating. That sounds promising, but most of the teams were local or Florida teams, he said.

“The baseball fields aren't for local kids to play baseball, they're a business to bring in tourism,” he said. Many of the people coming in went home at night, rather than staying at a hotel. The tournament only lasted a weekend, so those who did need get a room only booked one night. Nation's Park is supposed to host week-long events, meaning seven nights of hotel business instead of one or two, he said. Now, the facility announced that a five-week tournament scheduled for July has been condensed into one week.

“We haven't really met our obligation to the hotel community in bringing any tourism to them,” Conrad said.

It's too early to say how the park will fare in the future, said city manager Ashby. Presutti's contract allows for a three-year “ramp-up period” before the facility must start meeting tougher economic goals by hosting more tournaments.

“All new businesses take a while to get going,” he said. “Give them the benefit of the doubt; give them three years before saying it's a success or failure.”

Figures given to the Board of County Commissioners by the City of Newberry and the Gainesville Sports Commission estimated the park would attract around 90,000 to 120,000 people each summer, and would inject $20 million into the local economy.

On average, Loog said each team equals three hotel rooms, including parents and coaches. A conservative estimate, he said, found that each room brings in about $300. With tournaments featuring upwards of 20 teams, Loog he believes said Nations Park will be a massive boon to the area.  

“When this is marketed properly, you're going to see teams come,” he said. “I still remain very optimistic.”

Blalock noted the park's management and the Alachua County Tourism Development Council still need to do work to convince people north Florida can be a tourist destination just like the southern half of the state. The Nations Park staff is working on putting together vacation packages that include three or four days in Newberry to play baseball, and a couple of days in Orlando, he said.

Presutti was unavailable for comment. He is currently planning on building another baseball complex in South Carolina, but city manager Ashby said it would not compete with Nations Park, due to each facility targeting a different age group. He was supposed to get about $695,000 as payment for the project, about 10 percent of the construction cost, but ended up with $480,000 after donating money to the City of Newberry to help with some of the unforeseen costs of construction relating to sinkholes on the property, said Ashby.

Presutti was supposed to create 21 jobs by October 2012, Mayor Conrad said. But by that time, he had only created about three jobs. He was given an extension to January 2014.

One roadblock might be that it's just too costly for a coach to bring his team to the park.

In order to get teams to sign up for the March 23 grand opening tournament, the park had to lower the cost for registering a team from $3,000 to between $200 and $300. That's in addition to the cost of traveling to Newberry and renting a hotel room, which Conrad said gets pricey because of the deal between the hotels and Presutti.

“That looks like it's a pretty expensive trip to Florida to play baseball,” he said.

The cost of playing at these fields is justified, Blalock said.

“Obviously, you got to pay a little bit more to play in this facility because of the infrastructure that was put in,” he said.

The opening weekend was a good showcase for how cutting-edge Nations Park is, said Blalock. After rain interrupted a game, the players were back on the field as soon as the bad weather stopped. Because of the artificial turf and layers of rocks underneath that filter the water to a retention pond, the delay lasted only about 45 minutes, he said. Features like that, in addition to the guarantee of at least four games, make it worth the money, he added.    

Nations Park came with the hope of vitalizing Newberry's economy, and opinions vary on whether it will sink or soar.

Only time will tell, said city manager Ashby.

“They haven't even started yet,” he said.  

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