BY DAVID LIGHTMAN/Alachua Chronicle

NEWBERRY – At their Sept. 6 regular meeting, the Newberry City Commission heard an update on the proposed F-300 AgriFoodTech Research and Innovation Park, a joint venture “startup hub” partnering with the University of Florida, and numerous other entities. 

City Manager Mike New introduced Kamal Latham, CEO of Global Solutions: “Kamal Latham, who works with us in a consulting capacity, has been spearheading our initiative to develop the Newberry AgriFoodTech Park… He probably started helping us out in November, and so we thought it would be a great opportunity to share with the commission our progress through his first year of work.”

Latham explained the origin of the F-300 name and the purpose of the project: “F (is) for Florida, and 300 represents the number of crops, specialty crops, that are grown here in Florida – because the intention of this is that this is a Florida asset that will be based in Newberry, that will benefit the citizens of Newberry and the region, the state, and beyond.

“The purpose of this is simply job creation. Job creation helps to create that economic turn, creates economic activity, and then you have more tax revenue because you have more jobs and you have more economic activity. So that’s the objective with this initiative. What is AgriFoodTech? You have Upstream and Downstream. Upstream is closer to the farmer, Downstream closer to the consumer.”

Latham added, “It will likely be that the type of companies that would be attracted to this Research and Innovation Park would be on the Upstream side of the category because a lot of businesses on the Downstream are internet-based, e-commerce, and sometimes they may not need brick-and-mortar, so when we’re talking about the AgriFoodTech Park and the types of companies and types of jobs, it would most likely be along those companies on the Upstream side of the equation.”

Latham explained, “What is Newberry’s competitive edge? Newberry’s region has the research capacity to be a competitive AgriFoodTech Hub. UF IFAS has spent $278 million on research, and overall, the University of Florida has spent $1 billion from 2021 to 2022.

“UF has one of the fastest supercomputers in the world and is the AI land grant university. That’s one of the big competitive unique selling points for Newberry and the Newberry region. Having the IFAS Extension Office was a big deal… With the leadership that we have at IFAS and the research capacity at UF, particularly with that supercomputer, it’s literally one of the fastest supercomputers on the face of the planet… IFAS has hired faculty specifically to research AI applications in agriculture, and so this is something that is an opportunity that this region can capture for high-technology and high-wage jobs.”

Latham said the F-300 project will facilitate job creation by being a hub of artificial intelligence, biotechnology, advanced energy, and industrial efficiency tech applications in the AgriFoodTech sector: “You have jobs that will be across the spectrum for different levels, and so what this will be is the driver, and as a driver this will help to lead the economic growth, and then to be a lot of different types of jobs at different skill sets and different levels that would have come along with it.”

Latham said over 45 stakeholders have been identified since 2022, and over $75,000 in planning grants have been secured. The next steps will be to complete a feasibility study and business plan for the business incubator in 2024.  

Latham listed some of the stakeholders that have already been identified including The International Fresh Produce Association. “This is a big deal. It’s a big entity,” said Latham. “This is the international association for fresh produce, and so about 90 to 95 percent of all the fresh produce in America, produce and flowers, is touched by at least two of their members.”

Commissioner Tim Marden asked, “What’s our timeline and what’s it going to take to start turning dirt?” Latham said, “To turn dirt, that would probably be a three-to-five-year horizon. Ideally, if you have a private sector developer that would come in and be able to, you know, do development, then that could help move the project forward.”

Mayor Marlowe interjected, “I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes, but I think out of that meeting in November we got a private, a local private sector developer, that is interested, and we may be seeing their application to fold some land into that coming sometime soon, which would vastly elevate that timeline.” 

Commissioner Marden said he wanted to get construction moving as quickly as possible, faster than three to five years. Mayor Marlowe echoed, “We’re gonna get with that private developer, and you know, make it happen, because I agree with Commissioner Marden. We want this thing to happen, we want it to happen right now and right away.”

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GAINESVILLE ‒ Alachua County Public Schools is updating its timeline for developing a comprehensive school rezoning plan. Under the new timeline, a revised rezoning proposal that reflects enrollment figures for the current school year will be shared with the School Board and the public in October.

In keeping with a state-mandated timeline for adopting any new policy, including new attendance zones, the Board will hold a first reading of the new rezoning plan on Oct. 17, a public hearing on Nov. 14 and a final vote on Dec. 5.

New attendance zones will still be adopted before the end of this calendar year and take effect for the 2024-25 school year.

The two community input sessions on rezoning postponed due to Hurricane Idalia have also been rescheduled to Oct. 2 at 5:30 p.m. at Kanapaha Middle School and Oct. 12 at 5:30 p.m. at Santa Fe High School.

The updated timeline, including community input sessions, is posted on the district’s rezoning website at New proposed maps and other information will also be posted on that site as soon as they’re available.

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. (Sept. 12, 2023) – City of Gainesville leaders invite all neighbors to a ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark the reopening of Forest Park in Southwest Gainesville.  The event will be held Saturday, Sept. 23 from 10 a.m. to noon.  Forect Park is located at 4501 S.W. 20th Avenue.

The park has been closed for renovations since February.  The municipal park features new turf for its three full-sized soccer fields, as well as for an additional 2/3-sized soccer field for younger players and senior athletes.  There are two sand volleyball courts each with adjustable nets for competition-quality play and two basketball courts also striped for six pickleball courts.  There are both small- and large-dog park areas with new amenities.  And there is outdoor lighting for evening play, eight player benches, 30 new bleachers, 13 shade structures and perimeter fencing.

 Additional improvements have been made to the parking lots, two recreational pavilions, field drainage and irrigation.

 Construction costs for the project totaled $3.6 million funded through the Wild Spaces Public Places surtax and a $200,000 Florida Recreation Development Assistance Program matching grant.

In case of severe weather, the event will be rescheduled for 4 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 26.

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GAINESVILLE ‒ Alachua County Public Schools has announced that due to the ongoing shortage of bus drivers and the negative impact on bus schedules and school attendance, the district is making changes to its bus transportation system. The School District says the changes are necessary to significantly reduce late and non-arriving buses, increase on-time arrivals and departures, and use public funds more effectively.

Under the new system, ‘courtesy’ bus routes and magnet and school choice programs stops will be revamped. The “courtesy” bus routes for all students except those attending the highest needs elementary schools will be eliminated beginning Jan. 8.

“Courtesy” buses are those provided to students who live within two miles of their zoned school and are not ESE (Exceptional Student Education) students. Currently, courtesy routes require 16 buses at an annual cost of about $1.8 million, for which the district receives no reimbursement from the state. About 1200 students in the district currently receive courtesy busing.

Instead of courtesy busing, the district will offer parents the opportunity to request transportation if their student’s walk to school meets the state’s legal definition of a ‘hazardous walking condition.’ More information on the application process will be provided to the parents of courtesy riders in the near future.

The district will also be revamping the current system for transporting more than 1,600 students who attend magnet and other choice programs not located at their zoned school. The current ‘hub’ stops at which buses stop to pick up those students will be updated to increase efficiency and reduce the number of buses needed to transport magnet/choice students. Currently the district runs 26 magnet/choice buses at a cost of about $1.8 million.

The revised magnet/choice changes will also take effect Jan. 8 for magnet/choice students.

The School District says that the conservative estimate of the money saved by making these changes is between $750,000 and $1.4 million per year, not including the cost of drivers. The district does not plan to eliminate bus driver positions. Instead, the district’s driver shortage will be significantly reduced, which means there should be enough drivers to fill routes that don’t currently have a permanent driver and fill in for absent drivers.

The district is looking at other possible strategies to improve the efficiency of its transportation system, including the recruitment and retention of drivers. School start times may also be adjusted in future years to reduce delays and to comply with a new state law on start times.

The district’s chief of operations Maria Eunice and Transportation Director Dr. Dontarrius Rowls will be presenting the changes to the transportation system at a School Board workshop on Sept. 20 at 9 a.m. This will be an informational item only, as the School Board does not vote on bus route changes.

A district spokesperson says that information about these changes was sent to the families of bus riders Tuesday afternoon, with more details specific to magnet, choice and courtesy riders to follow in the near future.

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HIGH SPRINGS ‒ Four High Springs Firefighters have deployed to Dixie County as part of Engine Strike Team (EST) 1301.

EST 1301 includes crews from Clay County Fire Rescue, High Springs Fire Department, Putnam County Fire Rescue and Palatka Fire Department.

EST 1301 departed for Dixie County Friday, Sept. 1, 2023, and will be deployed for 10 days running fire and emergency medical calls for service in support of local fire departments in Dixie County.

High Springs' Engine 29 crew is led by Captain Kevin Pearson. Also, part of the deployment team are Lieutenant Gene Findley, Firefighter/Paramedic Mike Rivers, and Firefighter/EMT Clinton Drake.

This is the fourth deployment of High Springs resources in a year. Past deployments include a single resource Public Information Officer to Eastern Kentucky in August 2022, an Engine Strike Team to North Fort Myers in September 2022, and a single resource Engine Strike Team leader to Fort Myers Beach in October 2022.

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ALACHUA COUNTY, FL - Alachua County invites residents to join the newly created Equity Advisory Council (EAC). The eight-member EAC advises the County Commission and works alongside staff and the community to build open dialogue and partnerships and to implement County plans. The EAC is taking applications until Oct 16, 2023, for its initial council.
The EAC is looking for members of the community with the following characteristics: a commitment to racial and gender equity, social and environmental justice, diversity, and inclusion; the ability to work collaboratively with people of diverse perspectives and experiences; connections with local historically marginalized communities; experience/expertise in education, employment, housing, health and human services, criminal justice, or business; and experience, skills, and knowledge in policy development, research, evaluation, program/service design, and delivery.
Two initial appointments are for a one-year term, two are for a two-year term, and three are for three-year terms. After the initial appointment, all members will serve three-year terms.
The purpose of the EAC is to assist the County Commission in achieving equity in its community and work. Specific plans include establishing an annual work program for the Equity Advisory Council and assisting and advising the County on equity action plans. The EAC also collaborates with Alachua County Staff on citizen participatory research related to organization and departmental equity plans and processes; assists the County in reviewing policies, programs, and services for racial and gender bias; and recommends eliminating such bias. The EAC engages with other County committees, relevant stakeholders, agencies, non-profits, and communities related to equity and ensures that input from neighborhoods and communities that are most impacted or disadvantaged by racial and social inequity is included in the development of policy recommendations and the design and delivery of County programs and services.
“Please join Alachua County in becoming part of the change we want to see in the world,” said Alachua County Equity and Community Outreach Manager Diedre Houchen. “Join us in creating a stronger, more inclusive, equitable Alachua County.”
For more information, contact Diedre Houchen at 352-384-3195 or

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ALACHUA COUNTY ‒ Hurricane Idalia was predicted to make landfall early Wednesday morning on Aug. 30 as a Category 3 hurricane with winds over 125 mph and 4 to 7 inches of rainfall. Early predictions had the storm as a direct hit on Cedar Key and then roaring over Alachua and Columbia counties as it traveled up the east coast. This would have made it the strongest storm to hit Alachua County in 100 years.

Just before making landfall, the massive hurricane shifted shortly before coming ashore, taking a curve to the northwest. The National Hurricane Center’s updated models on Tuesday showed only a part of Alachua County inside Idalia’s cone, and the 5 p.m. update shifted the cone even further north and west, keeping all of Alachua County and neighboring Gilchrist County outside the path.

While that was good news for Alachua County, it was bad news for Florida’s Big Bend area, especially Keaton Beach, located along Florida's Gulf Coast, 75 miles from Tallahassee.

Coastal towns along Florida's Big Bend, from Cedar Key northwest to Horseshoe Beach and Steinhatchee took the brunt of the storm with surges up to seven feet, flooding communities, destroying the landscape and demolishing buildings with winds up to 125 mph.

Inland, towns including Perry and nearby Live Oak suffered extensive damage from the wind as well. Over half a million residents lost power throughout the area that consisted of mainly rural communities, with no major population centers, which helped to keep structural damage and injuries down.

While not taking a direct hit, Alachua County still experienced damage from winds, which toppled trees, downed power lines and caused some structural damage, but it was much less than expected.

Alachua County issued its first ever mandatory evacuation order for mobile and manufactured homes, but the highest gusts of winds in the county were less than expected at around 55 mph, which were still high enough to cause damage and power outages throughout the area.

Public schools, the University of Florida and Santa Fe College were closed in anticipation of the oncoming storm. Schools reopened and resumed normal hours/operations on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023.

It took several days to restore all power in Alachua County as the power companies worked in the hardest hit areas first. Outages were widespread throughout northwest Florida with utility crews working 24 hours a day to restore power. Columbia, Alachua and Suwannee counties were lower on the list than some others that suffered more extensive damage.

Outages were reported in Duval, Flagler, Lake, Volusia, Baker, Bradford, Clay, Gilchrist, Levy, Marion, Putnam and Union counties. In Alachua County, the Public Works Department cleared 70 fallen trees that blocked roadways. With damage lighter than expected, the County was also able to provide public works and medical assistance to the surrounding harder hit counties.

Early reports claimed Hurricane Idalia was responsible for two deaths, a 59-year-old Gainesville man and a 40-year-old Spring Hill man. Both were killed Wednesday when they lost control of their vehicles while driving during the storm, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.

Alachua County was spared from the catastrophic damage other areas suffered as Idalia was a devasting Category 3 hurricane that caused flooding, power outages and structural damage to northwest Florida and up into Georgia and the Carolinas.

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