Last updateThu, 13 Oct 2016 9pm

Revitalizing Heart of Downtown

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ELLEN BOUKARI/Alachua County Today

Kevin Crowder of Redevelopment Management Associates (RMA) explains key points of his firm's preliminary market study and strategy for boosting economic activity in Alachua's downtown and historic district.

ALACHUA – According to an economic research firm retained by the City of Alachua, the lynchpin to boosting economic activity in Alachua’s downtown area comes down to five factors: recognizing what should be preserved, enhanced, promoted, invested in and capitalized upon.

Preliminary recommendations were offered by Redevelopment Management Associates (RMA) at a public workshop held Monday, June 13 in Alachua City Hall. RMA is the consulting firm retained by the City of Alachua to conduct a market study and economic development plan for the downtown area. An initial workshop was held in January to discuss the need to boost the downtown and how that could be accomplished.

Some of the issues raised at the January workshop included possible ways that traffic along U.S. 441 could be directed to the business district in downtown Alachua; the creation of adequate parking; better signage; how to maintain foot traffic on Sundays when some stores are closed; removing stop signs on Main Street; modifications to city codes to encourage shorter business startup times; and ways to help keep retail buildings from being rented out as office space. Additional issues and suggestions were submitted through the survey process as well.

Since that initial workshop, RMA sought public input through surveys of downtown business owners and property owners to gain insights into existing conditions and ways to improve the business climate throughout the city and downtown for inclusion in an economic development plan. The firm conducted additional market research and analysis to arrive at the recommendations.

The mid-afternoon meeting, which was held in the commission chambers, was attended by more than 50 individuals representing business and property owners in the downtown area as well as longtime residents interested in the future plans for the area.

RMA’s Director of Economic Development Kevin Crowder presented preliminary findings of the marketing study and a draft economic development plan to the Alachua City Commission.

Suggestions included branding downtown Alachua to give it an easily recognizable identity, attracting a business class hotel, attracting residential investment, enhancing the residential quality of life and responsiveness to businesses and investors.

Suggested opportunities included preservation of the area’s unique character, such as its authenticity of historical buildings and venues. Other recommendations included enhancing relationships with major businesses in the city, investing in recreation complexes and in the entrances to the city and providing incentives for targeted uses in the downtown area.

RMA offered a number of areas that could be invested in that would improve the downtown area’s competitiveness. These investments include a downtown coordinator position, a marketing and branding initiative, a façade improvement program, directional and wayfinding signage, street lighting, additional streetscape and landscape improvements.

Promoting downtown events was also a key finding of ways to bring the community to the downtown area through ways such as music, arts, storytelling, and historic awareness events.

After the conclusion of the presentation, city commissioners as well as some audience members offered their comments about the direction of the downtown and their ideas as well.

The next step in the process is for RMA to incorporate suggestions made Monday into the final market study and action plan, including strategies to accomplish the recommendations, for presentation at the July 11th scheduled commission meeting.

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Revival in Shuffleboard Popularity Taking Root in High Springs

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LINDA HEWLETT/Special to Alachua County Today

First place winners Gabrun Onel (left) and Nick Sekora (far right) are congratulated by event organizer Tom Hewlett (center).

HIGH SPRINGS – The newly resurfaced High Springs Shuffleboard Court was put to good use last Thursday when the City's Recreation Director, Robert Basford, hosted the inaugural Shuffleboard Tournament.

“The court has not been in use in quite some time and many residents are surprised to realize it even exists,” said Linda Hewlett, event co-organizer.

The court had been in disrepair until the City recently approved $800 to resurface it. Two picnic tables are also part of the new recreation area behind City Hall.

In honor of the inaugural event, Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe provided barbecue, hamburgers, sides and drinks for the players and onlookers. “There were about 30 people there,” said Hewlett. “A good start to what we hope will eventually become a bigger event. Robert told us he wants to create teams to challenge other area teams. We would love that.”

Although the day was sunny, the group didn't convene until 6 p.m. to take advantage of cooler temperatures for the tournament. There were eight teams with two people comprising each team.

First place went to Gabrun Onel and Nick Sekora, each of whom was awarded mugs provided by Gainesville Harley-Davidson. Second place went to Ruhiyyih and Mitch Young, who received gift certificates for hair cuts at Talk of the Town Salon, Inc. in High Springs for their efforts.

Anyone interested in creating a team may contact High Springs Parks and Recreation Director Robert Basford at his office or through City Hall.

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Tony & Al's Italian Restaurant Brings a Taste of Italy to Downtown

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RAINA BARNETT/Alachua County Today

Albiero Zuluaga, owner of Tony and Al's on Main Street in Alachua, prepares the oven for a fresh pizza, which only takes 7 to 8 minutes of baking in the wood-fired oven until it is a perfect golden brown.

ALACHUA – With 99 reviews by people on Facebook rating Al and Tony’s Italian Deli at 5 stars, it is no wonder the restaurant has three successful years of serving up Italian fare under its belt.

While the restaurant celebrated its three-year anniversary on May 8, 2016, it may be surprising to learn there are two Al and Tony’s Italian Deli locations in Alachua County, with one in Starke at 200 East Call Street, and one at 4960 Main Street in Alachua.

General Manager of the Starke location, Tony Veliz, and Genereal Manager of the Alachua location, Al Zuluaga, have known each other for nearly 15 years. Meeting in Ocala in another Italian restaurant, Bella Luna, the two joined forces in their love of cooking.

Zuluaga, a native of New York, and Velez, a native of Miami, believe they are bringing the authentic taste of Italy to Alachua County.

“I just like to cook,” Velez said. “We make our food fresh every day, the bread, it’s the right thing to do.”

And with Zuluaga’s 38 years of experience in the kitchen, from working in French and Italian restaurants in New York to cooking at home for family, the restaurant’s menu is tantalizing.

Food served at Tony and Al’s is made from scratch. No packets of dried chicken, no pre-packaged meals, no canned vegetables.

The most popular dish at Tony and Al’s is the gourmet pizza.

It is fresh, never frozen, and the dough is tossed and topped with fresh ingredients like cheddar cheese, green spinach, and more.

At the Alachua restaurant, entertainment is provided.

“The karaoke and music is at the Alachua location,” Velez said. “Latin American music by a live band also plays there.”

The Facebook page for the Alachua location boasts “the most delicious food in town,” with a list of the treats coming to guests in the month of June.

Mondays from 6:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. is karaoke night.

Wednesday is Trivia Night from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

On Thursday, June 16, the restaurant will host live music and an art night.

Local artists from the surrounding areas of High Springs and Alachua will display their art. Dinner guests will have the opportunity to not only enjoy viewing the art, but will also have an opportunity to purchase as well.

“The music and art will be set up on different sides of the restaurant,” Zuluaga said. “The live music will be near the bar, with art around for everyone.”

This restaurant is locally owned and operated. And it’s that local touch that lends a special ambience to its unique feel and atmosphere that sets it apart from many chain restaurants. The servers tend to be more invested in their work, and local customers benefit from the authentic Italian deli and restaurant experience that is unique in Alachua’s dining arena.

The Starke location is open Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., while the Alachua location hours are Monday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Sunday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

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Santa Fe High, Newberry High and Hawthorne Middle/High Graduate Classes of 2016

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ELLEN BOUKARI/Alachua County Today

Santa Fe High School graduated 261 seniors Saturday, June 11th at the high school on Raider Field.

ALACHUA – With the school year winding down and summer fast approaching, numerous high school graduations took place over the last week. Local high school ceremonies, complete with pomp and circumstance, were dotted across different locations this year due to renovations at the UF O’Connell Center, a popular venue for schools to hold their graduations.

Newberry High School held their commencement ceremony on June 9 at 7 p.m. at the high school’s Panther field. The 2016 class was made up of 135 graduates.

Hawthorne Middle/High School’s class was made up of 37 graduates and the graduation ceremony took the stage at the Phillips Center for Performing Arts at UF on June 11 at 9 a.m.

In Alachua, the Santa Fe High School (SFHS) Raiders football field was filled with family, friends and other loved ones to watch 261 Santa Fe High School graduates take the stage Saturday, June 11 at the football field at 8:30 am.

Elizabeth LeClear, SFHS principal, welcomed the crowd as well acknowledging the class as the only one to have received a medallion.

“Thank you for allowing me to have the opportunity to work with your most precious gift,” she began. “It has been a blessing. This is the end of my 30th year. I’m not quitting, but it’s the end of my 30th year, and there are not very many people that can say that the last four years were the best four years.”

Holding up a round medallion on a ribbon, “The medallion is for you,” she said. “You’re the only class that will have one because you’re my class.”

Cary Emerson, the student body president, addressed the crowd next. Through tears, she reminisced on the beginning of her years at SFHS and thanked those closest to her.

“I never dreamed that I would be standing here behind this podium, addressing you all this morning,” she said. “I’ve realized that I couldn’t reach my full potential unless I stepped out of my comfort zone. Speaking before you all today is definitely an example of that… Four years ago, I wouldn’t have necessarily considered this a privilege, however. Four years ago, I clung too tightly to my fears in the comfort of isolation.”

Then, she imparted tidbits of wisdom and advice to her fellow graduates.

“From the moment we arrive in this world, anyone and everyone has an opinion on what we should do and what we should become,” she said. “Many times, this vision that others have for us is not what we are truly meant to do. It is physically impossible to live out the vision that others have for our lives. You were created on purpose and with a purpose and you will find that purpose on the unchartered waters of your journey.”

Courtney Jones, the senior class president, spoke next and took a moment to congratulate her class on the hard work that it’s taken to make it to where they were sitting and encouraged them to keep dreaming big.

“The fact that we made it here definitely awards an accomplishment which is a testament of our perseverance and excellence,” she said. “All of us were destined for greatness – every single one of us – has the potential to put the small town of Alachua on the map – or even greater, to change the world.”

Dustin Durden, the salutatorian, gave comforting words and reminded his peers to not fear the future after completing this milestone.

“Parents, family members and friends, it is a great thing to feel to supported, and I know I do not speak for myself when I say that you all have been instrumental in my journey through high school,” he said. “Also let’s not forget about our wonderful teachers, they have taught us, guided us and prepared us for the future struggles of life.

“We face change a lot, in many different ways, and sometimes it can be a little bit frightening,” he told his classmates. “We often grow so accustomed to the way that life is in the present. When it finally changes, we might feel completely lost. The one thing that does not change in life is the fact that our life changes. It is important to remember, however, that we do not need to feel afraid or intimidated when it occurs and we do not have to see it as an end. Instead we can have hope, and look at it as a new beginning.”

Jacob Jenkins, SFHS’s valedictorian, took the podium next with a lighthearted and funny approach to his speech.

“If I would have gotten up to speak in front of thousands of people in ninth grade, I would have spontaneously combusted from sheer embarrassment,” he said. “Luckily for me, that is not the case four years later, but you may wish to keep a fire extinguisher in hand, just to be safe.”

He recalled a time when he had devoted hours to working on an assignment, only to realize that he had completed the wrong chapter by the end.

“On one fateful occasion, I was completing a round of diagonal categorization and the only way I knew how to tackle such a large and difficult assignment [was] by doing it all in one night,” he said. “After two and half hours of hard work, I had 14 out of 16 statements completed. In order to be certain that I had to do 16 in total, I went ahead and checked the assignment description on the class website. The good news was that I was correct in having to do 16 in total, but the bad news was, that I had been doing them all on the wrong chapter.”

“I just sat there in shock and then I came to my senses and had a nervous breakdown.” The crowd laughed in appreciation of his self-deprecating humor.

But he ended on a high note.

“Although this was, unquestionably, one of the worst experiences of my academic life, it did teach me an important lesson, and that was perseverance,” he said. “After that ordeal, I realized that I could work through any hardship, and so can all of you … Congratulations and best of luck to the class of 2016.”

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A View inside Hare Krishna

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KRISTINA ORREGO/Alachua County Today

Ramanya Das rises with the sun to reflect in the temple's courtyard.

ALACHUA – It’s 4:30 a.m., and while the rest of the world is asleep, the Hare Krishna temple in Alachua is softly lit and gently buzzing.

Women wearing ornate saris and men in white, flowing dhoti and kurta remove their shoes before stepping onto sacred ground.

They enter, bowing their heads and prostrating their bodies in the direction of the statue of Srila Prabhupada, the pioneer of their movement that began 50 years ago.

Beads in hand and eyes closed, they’re chanting the names of God and uttering the Hare Krishna mantra. This is all part of their ritual to seek Krishna and ask him to bless them before going on with the rest of their day.

Then the sun comes up, and the singing in the temple becomes louder as they raise their voices in joyful and unabashed worship.

The Krishna temple in Alachua was built in 1995, but the movement has been a prevalent part of the community since the early 70s, according to Krishna Keshava Das, a temple manager.

He said over 400 families within a 20-mile radius are affiliated with the temple and congregate throughout the week or to observe special holidays, such as the birthdays of Lord Krishna and Lord Chaitanya.

Krishna followers also take part in a Sunday Feast Festival once a week, a tradition that started at the beginning of Prahbupada’s movement.

“Srila Prahbupada wanted everyone to come and sing the glories of the lord in ecstasy,” Das said. “And once a week they do that,”

Das said the temple also gives allowances to the two schools that are nearby on temple property -- the Bhaktivedanta Academy and the Alachua Learning Academy.

The teachers at Bhaktivedanta teach standard academics while also incorporating lessons about Krishna, and the students at Alachua Learning Academy learn about Krishna during their afterschool program, he said.

Origins of the Hare Krishna/ISKCON Movement

A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada founded the Hare Krishna movement, or the International Society for Krishna Consciousness [ISKCON], in New York in 1966, according to Das.

It all started when Prabhupada was a young man living in India and he and a friend were invited to a talk given by a revered spiritual leader.Prahbupada was initially skeptical and didn’t want to go because would often witnessed similar figures doing abominable things at night, many of whom were people his father would invite to eat at their home on some occasions.

Nonetheless, his friend persuaded him and they went.

“The lecture had already begun [when they got there],” Das said. “And the saint stopped the lecture and he looked at the two boys and said ‘You two young men, you’re very intelligent. Why don’t you spread this message of the Lord in the western countries in English?”

Prabhupada responded by asking how it would be possible to spread Krishna’s message in the western world while India was still under British rule.

“And the answer he got was that this message is so important for the world and people are dying every day in want of it,” Das said.

So, Prahbupada made his way to New York, where gradually people heard him chanting and preaching in the parks, Das said. As more people began to hear the message, they began branching off to meet in separate places.

Since then, the Hare Krishna/ISKCON movement has proliferated to 500 major centers, temples and rural communities, nearly 100 affiliated vegetarian restaurants and millions of congregational members worldwide, according to the official ISKON website.

What They Believe

Krishna means the “all attractive person” in Sanskrit, a Hindu language, according to the Bhaktivedanta Trust International website.

In the Bhagavad-Gita, the Hindu Holy Scriptures, Krishna is God in the form of a 16-year-old boy with dark skin and bluish-black hair.

The book tells the story of this young man who attracts followers with his wisdom and charm.

Das explained that while the followers of Krishna believe in and worship the same God of Christianity or Islam, the movement differs from these because of the rich details about Krishna in the Gita that personify him, he said.

These details include where he lives – a beautiful Kingdom full of beautiful palaces made of valuable gems and wish-fulfilling trees, as described in the Gita – and what he does during the day.

“Every word is a song,” he said. “Every step is a dance.”

Conversely, Earth is considered a prison, where the aspects of the human experience, such as birth, disease, old age and ultimately, death are undesirable.

Followers of Krishna, therefore, strive to live a life of purity by chanting, meditating and doing bhakti-yoga every day in order to reach Krishna Consciousness, or an awareness and affection for Krishna.

Followers of Krishna adhere to four principles from the Gita: no meat eating, gambling, illicit sex or intoxication, Das said.

The consumption of animal meat erodes the compassion in people’s hearts that they are inherently born with, while gambling destroys truthfulness.

“When we eat [meat], it contaminates our hearts more and more,” Das said. “It destroys our compassion and destroys our mercy. We become now like an animal.”

On the other hand, illicit sex, or sex outside of marriage, destroys people’s cleanliness, as well as causing inevitable suffering in the long run, despite the temporary satisfaction.

Finally, he said intoxication destroys a person’s austerity, which could further contribute to society as a whole becoming a mess.

“If it’s very hot, we can handle it,” he said. “If it’s very cold, we can tolerate it, to a certain degree. As we lose our ability to become austere, then everything becomes a problem.”

He said the whole idea behind their philosophy is to become happy, which comes from the soul and is not derived from the outside world.

“Happiness doesn’t come from material things,” he said. “There’s temporary pleasure from material things… and they bring misery afterwards. So, real pleasure comes from the heart [and] when we are engaged in the service of the Lord.”

Ragat Mika

In the summer of 1971, Ragat Mika, who was formerly “Carol,” came home for the first time – except it was one she didn’t know she needed until she got there.

Mika grew up in Detroit, Michigan, one of 12 siblings in a Catholic household. Her father attended mass every morning before going to work.

Her sister became a nun, and as someone who was always seeking spiritual fulfillment, she decided to become one too, and joined the convent in Kalamazoo after graduating high school.

“[She thought] If God is one, and the message of God is absolute… Why should I put all my energy in to a teaching career that will bring people to become this religion as opposed to another religion?” she said.

“So, I thought, God is bigger than this, bigger than just one religion.”

She took some college courses, but decided to take an impromptu trip to New York to find herself and be exposed to the greatest number of religions and philosophies in one, she said.

She eventually landed a job as a typist at the United Nations and then worked for UNICEF. All the while, she continued on her spiritual quest – visiting different churches and bookstores to scour literature on various philosophies.

“I kind of turned my back on the Catholic Church,” she said. “But I still had this affinity for wanting God and connecting with God.”

She said she eventually stumbled upon a Krishna magazine called “Back to Godhead” and read an article that taught her about Krishna’s four basic tenets.

“I thought, ‘Wow, that really appealed to me,’” she said. “This is something substantial.”

She also remembers that on one particular Saturday, she was meditating in Prospect Park in Brooklyn with the hope of merging with the totality of spirit, she said.

Then, she became overwhelmed by an urgency she couldn’t assign a meaning to at the time.

“I thought, before I leave this world, I need to bring a message to summon my acquaintances,” she remembered. “I didn’t know what I was going to say [and] I didn’t have a concrete message for them. But I thought, I can’t just leave them behind.”

Shortly after, she met a Krishna devotee on the way to the subway and asked him if he knew where a Buddhist nunnery was located in New York.

He replied that he didn’t know where a Buddhist nunnery was, but he could say where Buddhism was.

“The Buddhists want to be liberated alone, whereas devotees of Krishna want to liberate others with them,” she said. “That was what really drew me.”

He then invited her to a Sunday feast at a temple on Henry Street.

She said when she got there, she arrived to find a lecture that spoke directly to her desire to spread a message to the people around her, and it brought her to tears.

“It just all started buzzing and waking me up,” she said. “Like this was really the truth.”

Then, she ate the Sunday feast for the first time; the appetite that overcame her was one that surpassed the physical. She said she couldn’t stop eating and had serving after serving.

A strict vegetarian at the time, mostly consuming a bland, microbiotic diet, she was ravenous for foods she had deprived herself of.

“Sweets and fried things and spicy things, it was all there,” she said. “Dairy, milk and cream – I don’t know, it was like I was just arriving home for home cooking after so many births and lifetimes.”

She said she stayed at the temple overnight, and the next day, she was out on Jones Beach, dressed in a sari and distributing “Back to Godhead” magazines with the devotees.

She now resides in Alachua with her family, and said she has dedicated herself serving her spiritual master, Prahbupada, by helping him in the publishing and distributing of his books.

And as the sun rises over the Krishna temple in Alachua, a melodious harmony resonates within its walls as devotees begin their day with worship.

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