Last updateWed, 17 Dec 2014 11pm

Business of the springs: Impacts of eco-tourism

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MARK LONG/Photo special to Alachua County Today

Families gather at Ginnie Springs near High Springs for some relaxation in the water. Researchers looked at the economic impact of several public and private springs to measure how much money they bring into the area.

ALACHUA COUNTY – Every summer for seven years, she would drive her daughters from Clearwater to High Springs.

It was the 90s, and Camp Kulaqua in High Springs was a beautiful place for Barbara Ferguson and her kids to spend their summer.

She recalls that there used to be docks all the way around, rope swings, and a huge inner tube fit for two people in the spring. There was even a diving board.

“The kids used to jump off the diving board and onto the tube, catapulting the other person off the other side,” she said.

The camp was surrounded by the Hornsby Springs, one of the gorgeous local flowing springs.

“I was the parent in the springs,” she said.

In the last 10 years, Ferguson said that one day the spring just stopped flowing. Camp Kulaqua is now a camp without a spring.

“It broke my heart,” said Ferguson, who is a board member of the environmental group Save Our Suwannee.

The springs were one of the reasons Ferguson left her home in Clearwater to move to Gainesville.

“I fell in love with the springs. We would go camping. It was beautiful.”

Now, Ferguson only has one word to describe Hornsby Springs.

One word, repeated three times.

“Gone, gone, gone.”

Over the last 50 years, the increase of water permits given by legislatures to industries and farmers has resulted in the ground levels to drop at least 40 feet, which continues to reduce the flow of water into the springs, Ferguson said. We cannot continue on the course we are on, unless we don’t want to have any springs, she added.

“Subsidies need to be used more wisely, to plant the right crops in the right places,” she said.  

Ferguson said the water policy has always been in favor of developmental agriculture, which has been bad for the springs.

But, now, “it’s been bad on steroids,” she said. “The water is barely flowing, it is wimping along. There is not enough water, so there is little ground pressure underground to push through to the springs,” she said.

If the region loses its springs, the property values of homes will go down, because many people move here to be close to them

“The problem with most of our springs is over-withdrawal from the aquifers that feed them, lack of rainfall and increasing pollution from fertilizers and wastewater treatment plants,” said Annette Long, president of Save Our Suwannee.

That is why Ferguson got involved with Save Our Suwannee, a non-profit organization aiming to help raise awareness to the public and protect the water quality and quantity in the Suwannee Basin. The basin is made up of the springs that feed the Suwannee River and the Santa Fe River in North Central Florida.  Recently, the board, made up of nine members, has been in contact with two economists from the University of Florida, Allen W. Hodges and Tatiana Borisova, to create a presentation to raise awareness of the economic benefits of the springs. Because the economy has been such a pressing issue in the legislature, they want to make a presentation that will appeal to the legislators based on the economic value that the springs bring to the region.

The research that Borisova and Hodges are undertaking will not be finalized until May. This impact study will be finished in June. For now, they are going through the process to help achieve the goal of Save Our Suwannee.

“The focus of the project is to estimate the economic interest in the area,” said Borisova, an assistant professor and extension specialist specializing in water economics and policy in the Food and Resource Economics Department at the University of Florida.

She and Hodges, along with a team of researchers, are developing a presentation on the project, which focuses on the economic contribution of eight public springs as well as some private springs.

The project consists of an input and output model to help display the contribution of the springs in the region. Existing information about the visitors’ region, the new money that it is bringing into the region from the outside, the number of jobs brought into the region and the goods and products used in recreation from the springs are factors the two are analyzing, Borisova said.

“There is a concern for this treasure we have here, and for decision makers, we need to have numbers for the economy to measure the contribution of the springs to the region, and we already see that there is a connection, and the region would likely suffer without it,” Borisova said.

Borisova said that she and Hodges have interviewed businesses around the cities and the local chamber of commerce to verify their estimates. Using the data collected from that and existing studies, Borisova hopes that they will come out with a regional gross domestic product (GPD) that will help their case when presenting to legislatures.

“The regional GPD will establish a relationship to tourism and an established value from the springs recreation,” Borisova said. She hopes this will then measure the total value of the springs.

Ferguson has many memories of the springs, which she said is important for action. “You need long-term memories to have long-range visions, and the legislators have short-term visions,” she said. That is why she wants the numbers to help convince them to adjust their ways to conserve water, instead of continuing to use up all the water from the springs.

“The outside money coming in is critical to our point, because people do come from all over to see the springs,” said Annette Long, president of Save Our Suwannee.

She said the presentation created by the research from Hodges and Borisova will be presented to local officials, business leaders and the public.  

“We want to bring this info straight to them instead of them coming to us,” Long said.

Long said that the organization wants to show the legislature that, even though their goal is to create jobs and help the economy, the springs brings in money just by being there. They also flow fresh water into Cedar Key, which is essential for the oysters and the clams that are there for business.

“We are trying to make the point that the springs are essential to our way of life as well as to small businesses in the rural North Florida region,” Long said.

Save Our Suwannee is not blaming agriculture and industry, Ferguson said. She explained that the need for the springs is equally as important as the need for agriculture and industry.

“We need both,” she said. However, she said that there needs to be adjustments for a low-environmental impact in the development for the agriculture. “If my bank account is going low, I’ll turn off the cable,” Ferguson said. She wants legislatures to make adjustments so that we don’t run out of water and the springs can still flourish.

“We need to join arms and solve this together,” she said.

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Santa Fe top volleyball coach steps down

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Photo special to Alachua County Today

Michele Faulk, fourth from the left on the top row, poses with the varsity volleyball team. She has been the volleyball coach for 21 years.

ALACHUA – After 27 years of coaching volleyball, 21 of those years being the head varsity volleyball coach of the Santa Fe Raiders, Michele Faulk has stepped down.

“It has been an incredible ride,” Faulk said.

Faulk, 49, who has managed to lead the Raiders to a total of 498 wins, said she was preparing to start a new chapter in her life after her retirement from coaching. She has decided to spend her time and effort elsewhere, with her new granddaughter, Kymber.

“There were times this past season that I would go for days before being able to see her, and I don’t want to miss out on her growing up,” she said.

Michele Faulk’s husband has also retired recently from the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office, and she said she would like to spend some time traveling with him as well.

In her younger years, Faulk attended Dixie County High School where she was the setter and captain of her volleyball team. Later on in college, she also played intramurals.

While it’s no surprise that she loves the sport, Faulk said that she also “wanted to be able to be a mentor for the ladies and teach life lessons through the sport.”

“I always tried to instill in my girls to give 110 percent and to leave everything on the court and have no regrets,” she said. “When you walk away from the game, or in life, you know you left everything out there and gave your all.”

Though she will continue to remain the Athletic Director of Santa Fe High School, her 43-year-old assistant coach, Paqui Peon, will replace her as the head coach of the school’s varsity volleyball team.

Faulk said she has faith that Peon will lead the team to greatness, perhaps even a State Championship in the near future.

“I am really honored to be taking over for her because I know how special the volleyball program is for her,” Peon said.

Peon decided to coach high school in the local area eight years ago, though he has been coaching the Gainesville Juniors club for 10 years now. Peon moved up from Miami.

“There was so much talent,” he said. “Through a mutual coach, I was made aware that there was a possibility of an opening at Santa Fe.”

Peon, like Faulk, said he strongly believes that coaching in volleyball is more than just teaching athletes a sport.

“We’d like to say at Santa Fe, that we teach life skills through volleyball,” he said.

Peon said he hopes that he, as the new Raiders’ head coach, will be able to make the team stronger in any and all aspects that come with the sport.

He said he has the same high expectations as Faulk.

“I expect a lot from the program and everybody involved in the program, and so does she,” said Peon.

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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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Nations Park under new management for now

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 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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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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