Last updateWed, 30 Nov 2016 11pm


Nations Park under new management for now

W - Nations Ballpark OpeningIMG 2324

 Alachua County Today File Photo

Teams face off at the inaugural tournament in 2012. Low team turnout and cancelled tournaments have been an obstacle for the park.

NEWBERRY – Over 160 teams have played on the baseball fields of Nations Park in Newberry over the last two weekends in two different tournaments. Both times, the park was under new management.

The Gainesville Sports Commission handled the operations of Nations Park during the last two tournaments, and a dialogue with the City of Newberry might lead to it being a permanent relationship.

The two entities are in talks to have the Gainesville Sports Commission (GSC) take over the park’s day-to-day management.

Right now, the city is waiting for the GSC to take the proposal to its board for approval. After that, the contract would have to be approved by the Newberry City Commission.

There are some snags, however.

“The city commission still has some issues with it,” said Newberry Mayor Bill Conrad. “They want $100,000 from the city. That’s not in our budget, so we got to work out where that’s going to come from,” he said.

The proposal will go before the Alachua County Tourist Development Council for approval. Though the Tourist Development Council doesn’t have to approve the deal, if it did, it could be a way for Newberry to get the $100,000 the GSC wants. The council could then give the Alachua County Commission a recommendation to approve money to help with improvements to the park.

The park was originally managed by Lou Presutti’s Nations LLC. Since it opened in 2012, cancelled tournaments and low turnout for teams have been a challenge for the facility.  

“They were doing fine, but I think there is a sense that it could be done differently and maybe even better,” said City Manager Keith Ashby.

“The Gainesville Sports Commission appears interested in doing that,” he said.

Presutti, founder of Cooperstown Dreams Park in New York, sent a letter to the Newberry City Commission in support of the GSC management takeover.

Assuming the contract is signed, Presutti would be a tenant of the park under the arrangement. The city would still work with him, and his organization would still hold tournaments in Nations Park.

Last weekend’s tournament saw 70 teams come to play, and the weekend before that saw 93 teams, Ashby said. The Gainesville Sports Commission ran both events.

“They’ve shown great resolve with the last two tournaments,” he said.

The city entered talks with the GSC because it couldn’t run the park itself, Ashby said.

“The city is not really in the business of operating sports facilities,” he said. Newberry, in order to satisfy requirements for state grants, must create a certain amount of jobs, but they must be in the private sector.

The vision is to have the 16-stadium park be mainly operated by the GSC, but to also be rented out to a variety of organizations, Mayor Conrad said.

Nations Park is meant to bring economic development to the area and get people to spend money in restaurants, hotels and gas stations, Ashby said.

The last two weekends have been good signs for the future of Nations Park, Mayor Conrad said.

“It’s been very promising,” he said.

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Police Chief still absent after vacation ends

HIGH SPRINGS – High Springs Police Chief Steve Holley’s 30-day leave is over, but it is unclear whether he will return to the police department.

In January, Holley took 30 days off because he had accumulated the time by covering shifts for other officers, said City Manager Ed Booth. Sergeant Antoine Sheppard became the acting chief.

Booth denied rumors that Holley was stepping down or being ousted as the police chief, insisting that Holley was just taking vacation time.

Despite Holley’s 30 days having ended, Antoine Sheppard is still the acting chief of police.

City Manager Booth said he didn’t know whether Holley would come back. The only thing Booth said he knew was that Holley had his attorney contact the city attorney. He said he had no information on what the attorneys discussed.

“I got to make a decision, talk to the attorney, that hasn’t happened yet.”

Booth wouldn’t say what the decision he had to make was.

On Feb. 27, he indicated he didn’t know where Holley was, though his vacation time had ended by that date.

“I have no idea what happened to Holley,” he said.

Holley declined to comment.

Sheppard said he didn’t know if or when Holley was coming back.

Holley met with Booth the same week he requested time off to discuss reorganizing the police department. He declined to give any more information. Booth also declined to give information about the meeting or how the department might be reorganized.

In early February, Alachua County Today put in a public records request for email correspondence between Booth and Holley, but was unable to find any.

Florida’s Sunshine Law requires governmental meetings and records, including email correspondence, to be available upon request.

Booth said in an earlier interview he didn’t use email for that reason.

Holley took over after William Benck, the interim chief, resigned in January 2012. Holley was promoted to sergeant and then again to chief within a short time span, which could have been in violation of the city’s contract with the police union, the North Florida Police Benevolent Association, which establishes a process that has to be followed for promotions.

These procedures were not followed when Holley was promoted, said Jim Troiano, former High Springs police chief who helped negotiate the contract.

Multiple coworkers of Holley have filed complaints against him during his time as chief.

Angela Stone, who currently works for the Office of the City Clerk, was an administrative assistant for the police department in 2012. In August of that year, she filed a complaint against Holley, alleging a hostile work environment and attempts by Holley to intimidate her.

Former High Springs Police Department officer Adam Joy filed a complaint last year alleging favoritism. Holley gave Officer Ryan Scott, a personal friend, a key to the department and access to passwords, Joy wrote.

Scott submitted a letter of resignation to the city on Feb. 4.

In a Feb. 3 interview, Holley refused to confirm or deny rumors that he might come back to the police department as a sergeant, rather than as the chief.

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Hawthorne to improve water lines

HAWTHORNE – The last time the water lines were replaced in downtown Hawthorne, the Beatles had not even made it to the United States yet.

That was in the 1950s. But that is soon to change, as the city has a plan in the works that will bring new life to their aged and inefficient pipes.

City Manager Ellen Vause said that the city has hired the Florida Rural Water Association (FRWA) to complete an engineering study for the replacement of the nearly 60-year-old water pipes in the downtown section of Hawthorne.

“The water lines in the area are experiencing problems that 60-year-old cast iron and galvanized water lines commonly have,” Vause said. “This includes breaks, loss of water, corrosion in the lines and insufficient water pressure.”

The decision has been a long time coming, said Hawthorne Mayor Matthew Surrency. Decades ago, it was recognized that a change was needed with the city’s water system, and now the residents will get one, he said.

Talk for developing a plan heated up following the extension of Hawthorne’s wastewater treatment plant, among other projects to improve the city’s infrastructure, Surrency said.

“At our last few meetings, where we set a future plan for long range improvement, this has hit us all,” Surrency said. “We know this is an important need for the community for both the present, and in the future.”

With the current pipes, the city can have trouble meeting the needs of the residents at the exterior of the city, Surrency said.

“Beside the fact that the pipes are the old galvanized type, they are also very small,” he said. “This does not allow us to achieve the volume of water flow we desire.”

Surrency said that along with the pipes, additional technology could be next in line for installation in Hawthorne. The city is always looking to keep an eye toward the future, and the possibility for expanding, he said. Vause agreed with him.

“The new water line proposal would increase the main water lines from 6 inches to 12 inches, with upgraded sizing in the grid,” Vause said. “New fire hydrants and water meters would complete the project, estimated at $1,245,000.”

Not only will the improvements include new hydrants, but possibly a larger water main as well. The overall water quality for the city will also increase, Surrency said.

The city is currently applying for a loan from the Florida Rural Water Association to pay for the complete engineering plans. Once there are completed plans, the city will be able to apply for grants and grant/loan combinations, Vause said.

“At this point in time, the project is just in the beginning stages,” she said. “Depending on the availability of grants and/or loans, the project could start in 2015, or be pushed out additional years as we wait for funding.”

While this is an exciting time, Mayor Surrency said, it is still somewhere in the planning stage.

“My goal is to have us find funding for it in a timely manner without having to place that stress on our citizens,” he said. “We are keeping our eye out for several options to work on the project, and evaluating them constantly.”

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Watson shelves boundary act repeal

ALACHUA COUNTY– State Representative Clovis Watson decided to shelf a bill to repeal a law unpopular with the smaller communities in Alachua County.

Eight out of nine cities in the county support repealing the Boundary Adjustment Act. Gainesville, the only city to oppose, may be willing to make concessions.

The act was passed in 1990 by the state legislature and only applies to Alachua County. It was meant to reign in growth in urbanized areas outside city limits by regulating how cities can annex territory.

Gainesville was against repealing the law because it wanted to keep the urban reserve areas it established. Urban reserve areas are zones outside city limits that are urbanized that a municipality could annex. The act also establishes a process cities have to go through before claiming the territory.

During discussions between the nine cities and the county, the Alachua County League of Cities, a group of representatives from each of the cities in the county, decided the Boundary Adjustment Act should be modified to keep only the urban reserves aspect of the law and renamed the Urban Reserve Act, said High Springs City Commissioner Sue Weller during a meeting on Thursday, Feb. 13.

Rather than the county having the final say-so in who can annex what, the Urban Reserve Act would establish a board with a member from each city and one member from the county. Each commission would appoint an elected official to represent it, Weller said.

One of Watson’s staff members sent out an email on Tuesday, Feb. 25 announcing he was killing the bill for this legislative session so the cities could have more time to negotiate and compromise.

“I remain committed to working with the cities in their quest of this matter in a future legislative session,” wrote Michelle Sherfield on behalf of Watson.

The Boundary Adjustment Act in its current form creates unnecessary burden on small towns, said Alachua Mayor Gib Coerper in an earlier interview with Alachua County Today, by adding a layer of unneeded bureaucracy.

When the act was passed, the state laws governing the other counties wasn’t as developed as it is now, said High Springs City Commissioner Sue Weller during the Feb. 13 commission meeting.

“Now, the state law has pretty much been brought up to speed,” she said.

Alachua County still hasn’t adopted a position or any suggestions, said county spokesman Mark Sexton.

The Alachua County Commission discussed the issue at a March 4 meeting, but there is no rush to make a position or adopt a motion now that the bill is not in play for this legislative session.

In the meantime, the county will listen to recommendations, Sexton said.

“The commission is always willing to listen to suggestions,” he said.

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Meeting slated between Newberry and county to discuss economic development program

NEWBERRY – The City of Newberry still embraces its rural character even as it shapes its place in Florida’s sports tourism industry as part of a new community development initiative.

On March 13 at the municipal building, the city and county will have a joint meeting to announce details about Newberry’s participation in the Department of Economic Opportunity’s Competitive Florida Partnership.

Residents and business owners can attend the meeting, which will discuss the state’s intention to utilize a survey instrument to get a feel for the community and what it feels the priorities for economic development are, said Jerry O’Neil, chair on the grant’s steering committee.

O’Neil said he is particularly excited about the active participation from both the county and state on the steering committee. Those in attendance include the county’s director of economic development program and a representative from the North Central Florida Planning Council.

The committee has been able to look at Newberry’s impact on the region and has been given input about the overall approach of economic development, not just about specific industries.

For example, one approach might be focusing on streamlining the city’s high-speed internet to attract high-tech companies. Another might be the state of the education available for the anticipated work force that will come with a bolstered economy.

“The feeling is that if you’re going to have a labor force, the support for businesses coming in starts in the school system,” O’Neil said.

The committee will have a meeting with the school board that will focus on land availability and internet, and how they affect the city’s work force, which is important for expanding current companies and attracting prospective ones, he said.

“And of course, a major influence on the overall development is the Florida Innovation Hub at the University of Florida being here,” O’Neil said.

“Businesses nurtured there will be here for ten years and then will look for a new home, and we would like to think that the municipalities in Alachua County are where they will go.” It’s not just about land availability, he said, but the unique quality of life the towns offer.

O’Neil said the committee “is lucky that the city commission has been very supportive in the economic development efforts for Newberry.”

“Everyone is fully engaged and excited, which I think is the most critical part.”

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