NEWBERRY – As the City of Newberry seeks to build an identity centered around sports, Newberry Mayor Bill Conrad has reached out to Gatorback Cycle Park with a proposal about possibly annexing the company into the city limits.

Conrad and Wyrn Kern, event promoter for Gatorback, met several weeks ago and discussed how the cycle park could help Newberry further develop its sports image.

While the meeting failed to result in Gatorback’s agreement to voluntarily annex into the city, the cycle park did offer support to the Newberry community.

"What they want us to do is to push Gatorback as part of Newberry so people would go to Newberry, [its] restaurant, hotels or whatever they have," Kern said.

He added, “The only way we would promote Newberry is through our customers."

Conrad expressed his interest during the Oct. 10 city commission meeting, saying that Gatorback could possibly buy land in the future.

"He told me about his desire to have more land, to buy a second location where he can run more different types of races," Conrad said.

However, Kern said Gatorback is not interested in buying land in Newberry anytime soon.

Conrad said he hopes the business considers annexing in the future, adding that Gatorback is closer to Newberry than to Alachua – with only one parcel of land between Newberry’s city limits. The cycle park is five miles from Newberry City Hall, three miles closer than Alachua, according to Conrad.

Gatorback has been in the motocross business for around 40 years, and it offers four events a year, attracting over 1,000 people to the area, Conrad said. He said the city is currently in talks with several hotel chains, and including sports venues such as Canterbury Equestrian Center and Easton Sports Complex into what he calls a “sports event package,” would help attract hotel chains to Newberry.

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Alachua_Accident_10-18-11Two people were killed Tuesday morning when their vehicles collided on U.S. Highway 441 near Hague.

IALACHUA – Two people were killed Tuesday morning when their vehicles collided on U.S. Highway 441 near Hague.  No one else was injured.

The accident happened at the intersection of U.S. 441 and County Road 237 around 9 a.m.  According to preliminary reports, a 2007 Chrysler minivan being driven by Penny Wilkes, 59, of Gainesville, was headed northbound on U.S. 441, when a tan Lincoln Town Car being driven by 97-year-old Ellis Hitzing of Alachua failed to yield the right of way.

Hitzing, who had been traveling on CR 237, was reportedly attempting to cross over the northbound land of U.S. 441, but pulled into the path of Wilkes.  The minivan struck the driver’s side of the Linoln.

Paramedics arrived shortly after the accident occurred, but neither Wilkes nor Hitzing survived the crash.  There were no passengers involved.

Alachua Police Department (APD) Officer Jesse Sandusky said the accident investigation is still ongoing.

A man located across the street reportedly witnessed the accident, Sandusky said.

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Accident10182011DSCF4931Two people were killed Tuesday morning when their vehicles collided on U.S. Highway 441 near Hague.  Details about the accident are still emerging, but Alachua Police Department (APD) officials confirmed that both drivers were pronounced dead at the scene.  There were no passengers.

Additional information about the accident will be available in the Oct. 20 edition of Alachua County Today.



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HAWTHORNE – Hawthorne’s vacant fire department building may be renovated to bring money into the city.

Commissioner DeLoris Roberts brought this idea to the commission’s attention during a meeting on Tuesday. She said she thought this renovation could increase the city’s income without taxing residents.

“We got this building here that we don’t utilize,” she said. “”It would give us something to work towards to give us some money in our pockets.”

Hawthorne has been trying to reactivate the former city-run fire department and use its buildings and resources. However, Roberts’ plan to renovate the building may never come to fruition if this were to happen.

The city needs a backup plan if the fire department does not return, and this renovation could be the solution to bring income into the city, Roberts said.

All citizens could use the building for parties, banquets and meetings. She said there currently is a lack of locations in the city to host these types of events.

Roberts said using the fire department would give the city an advantage because the building site is already there to be used. Also, there is a kitchen, washer and dryer on the property that could be used during events.

Roberts said this renovation could revitalize the area and bring people into the area.

The building’s interior and exterior have not been maintained throughout the years. The roof needs to be fixed, and areas of the building will need to be reconstructed since it is not up to code.

Also, furniture will need to be bought, and there would be annual operation costs once the property is functional.

Mayor Matthew Surrency said it is a good idea to consider this option if they are unsuccessful in bringing the fire services back to the city.

Hawthorne resident Leonard Jones said this idea might not be the answer to the city’s attempt to bring money into the local economy.

“We may be chasing a dream concerning that fire station,” he said. “Is it really important?”

He also said the utilities are still on in the building even though it is vacant, and there is personal property from local residents being stored there.

Although this issue was only brought up for discussion during the meeting, commissioners will discuss the idea further at a later date.

Commissioner Roberts said this building might help the city’s current financial situation.

“We have to capitalize on our resources. We have to utilize what we have to make our finances better.”

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A glimpse at a day in the life of a blind person

White_CaneWhiteCane2Photo 1: Saturday’s White Cane Walk in Alachua marked the 12th year that both sighted and vision impaired individuals joined together for a two-block walk alongside U.S. Highway 441 to create public awareness of the White Cane Law. Photo 2: A blindfolded Peyton Cain required several attempts to successfully use a key to unlock a door.  Facing Cain is 78-year-old Jack Varnon, who founded the first White Cane Walk in Alachua.

ALACHUA – Jack Varnon, 78, was taking a walk in Gainesville one autumn day in 1988. Varnon is severely vision impaired. He couldn’t see the cars, but he relied on his German shepherd guide dog Bandit to lead the way.

Bandit, living up to his name, led Varnon onto County Road 232.  As he was walking along the busy road, a car traveling at 55 miles per hour hit him.

He remembers the chrome strip on the car slicing his thigh as the fender folded up. The nurse at North Florida Regional Medical Center had to use an iodine sponge to wipe away the flakes of paint imbedded in the open wound.

Varnon had no broken bones. He said he had some knee problems and a laceration on the upper part of his thumb.

“I’m sure God protected me,” Varnon said.

Bandit walked away unharmed.

This event turned out to be life changing, and sparked an annual White Cane Walk. The 12th Annual White Cane Walk sponsored by the Alachua County Council for the Blind took place Saturday in Alachua.

The walk started at the site of the former Alachua City Hall and ended near the Alachua Lions Club at the local Boy Scout Troop 88 hut. Some of the people walking were blind from birth. Others were not blind, but volunteered to hold signs or guide others. Some sighted people were blindfolded to experience what it is like to be blind.

The event was meant to raise awareness of the Florida White Cane Law, which mandates that all drivers must yield if there is a pedestrian crossing the street with a cane or guide dog.

When Varnon’s case went to court, he said the presiding judge had to research the Florida White Cane Law. Varnon said he was surprised the judge was uneducated about the law.

It was several years later that Varnon teamed up with Alachua resident Adam Boukari, who was 15 at the time, to organize the City of Alachua’s first White Cane Walk to raise awareness of the law.

Boukari was a Boy Scout in Troop 88 at the time, and took on the project to earn his Eagle Scout badge. At that time, and over the years, local Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts have actively participated in the walks.

Now, Boukari is 26, and though he missed earning his Eagle Scout badge by three merit badges, he still organizes the annual event. As assistant to Alachua’s city manager, he recognizes the importance of the Florida White Cane Law.

He said the goals of the annual walk are to raise awareness and share the information with people in the community.

Two people who participated in the walk Saturday were Michael Ferguson, 42, and Haylee Barclay, 16. Ferguson, a Gainesville resident, is blind. Haylee, a member of the Alachua Police Explorers program led him along Highway 441.

Ferguson couldn’t see the cars whizzing by on his right, but he could feel the autumn air bouncing back from the cars. He used a white cane to investigate the ground in front of him, as Haylee described the surface of the pavement and the upward curve of the hill.

Haylee had participated in the White Cane Walk in the past, but she had never led someone before Saturday. Together, she and Ferguson walked along side the road. Several members of the group held yellow signs that read, “We STOP for White Canes and Guide Dogs, Do You?”

“You sure you haven’t done this before?” Ferguson asked her.

Haylee said she was nervous to lead someone on the walk, but she learned some valuable lessons. She doesn’t have her driver’s license yet, but she said when she does, she will remember what she learned on the walk.

“I’m going to be extra cautious now,” she said. “I learned to be careful on the roads and watch out for everyone.”

Once the walk ended, hotdogs and soft drinks were served to those who participated. Several stations were set up for people to experience how someone who was blind might perform tasks such as unlocking a door or counting change. This year, there was a station that featured alarm clocks and watches altered to meet the needs for blind people.

Whether through walking blindfolded alongside a busy highway or through trying to accomplish everyday tasks, the annual event reminds and educates motorists about the importance of the Florida White Cane Law.

The Alachua County Council for the Blind has member meetings on the second Monday of the month at Kazbor’s Grille at 4860 NW 39th Avenue, Gaineville, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

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GAINESVILLE – Members of the Alachua County Tourist Development Council (TDC) voted Wednesday against funding a project that would expand the Hal Brady Recreation Complex in the City of Alachua through the purchase of an adjacent 105 acres of land currently zoned for a large residential development.

Despite the TDC’s vote, the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) is still set to consider on Tuesday the City’s request for $500,000 in funding from the bed tax, fees collected on hotel, motel, campground and similar rentals.

The 6-2 vote of the TDC followed a lengthy discussion among board members, some who raised concerns that the $500,000 request was subverting the typical request process.  Other board members, however, were in favor of the expansion the plan.  Council member Lucie Regensdorf, owner and operator of The Grady House Bed and Breakfast in High Springs, was supportive of Alachua’s bid for the funding.

Dubbed ‘Project Legacy,’ the expansion plan was presented to the BOCC in September, but commissioners declined to decide on it until further details were presented.

At the request of the county commissioners, Assistant to City Manager Adam Boukari discussed the plans in front of the TDC Wednesday. The complex, which is currently 25 acres, would include an additional 105 acres of land if approved at a county commission meeting set for Oct. 25.

The City is currently sitting on a contract with an option to buy the 105-acre parcel of land from a Kissimmee-based private developer.  That contract expires Dec. 31, after which time, the opportunity to purchase would reportedly be lost and the land is slated for use as a residential development containing 215 homes.

Although the city is requesting $500,000 in tourist development tax funds. The total cost of the land is $1.2 million.  The city has already raised the majority of the money required for the purchase.

With the expansion, the sports complex would have three multi-purpose arenas and the ability to host large-scale tournaments, including for lacrosse, an emerging sport. Those tournaments, city officials say, would generate money through the bed tax.

The Hal Brady Recreation Complex was selected to host the 2012 Babe Ruth Softball 12U World Series. In attracting 20 teams, the event would bring in approximately $3,562.50 in bed taxes alone based on an estimated 950 hotel room nights at $75 per room.

The BOCC is set to consider the City of Alachua’s request at the Oct. 25 commission meeting.



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NEWBERRY – The Canterbury equestrian center will be in the spotlight at City of Newberry’s next commission meeting.

During a city commission meeting Monday evening, some commissioners expressed frustration with lack of information made available to them. Commissioner Lois Forte said Canterbury is still a big issue, and she wasn’t as informed as she wanted to be once acquisitions talks began.

“We, as a body here, should be informed about everything that’s going on,” Forte said.

Mayor Bill Conrad said he is still trying to figure out what the community wants for Canterbury, even after hearing plenty of opinions from the town hall meeting held in September.

“I’m still getting lots of inputs, lots of email,” Conrad said. “I don’t know if I’m ready to sit down and say, ‘this is where we are at.’”

He added the City is still in “an information-gathering mode.”

Commissioner Alena Lawson said the commission should move forward together, and that discussion should be included in a regular city commission meeting, even if purchase details are not specific. She said that people stop her on the streets asking about what the City is going to do next.

“I clearly heard what the citizens said at the town hall meeting,” she said. “We clearly heard the agricultural tone.”

Commissioner Jordan Marlowe also agreed to the acquisition discussion, so that once the project starts making its way through county boards, the commission will “speak in one voice.”

Discussion about the equestrian center will be included on the commission agenda scheduled for Monday, Oct. 24.

Another issue addressed Monday was a resolution increaing rental fees for Newberry’s Municipal Building.

Commissioners drafted a new fee schedule with the assistance of Sondra Randon, assistant to Newberry City Attorney S. Scott Walker.

The proposed rate change includes a $200 rental fee for social events and for use by private organizations, while rental for weddings will increase from $300 to $350, a reasonable price and still cheap when compare to other venues said city commissioners. City-sponsored events and usage by non-profit organizations will be allowed to continue rent free.

Some city activities that will not require a rental fee include community action meetings, use by the Watermelon Festival committee and Bingo nights.

Non-profit organizations must be a valid 501c3, as determined by the Internal Revenue Code, to have the charge waived.

Walker cautioned there could be physical damage and overuse of the facilities, at which time he said the City could amend the resolution to include a usage limit.

The resolution adjusting the fee schedule is set for final review by the commission at the Oct. 24 meeting.

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