HIGH SPRINGS – Damon Messina has a busy schedule. Aside from being the assistant recreation director in Alachua, he is also a part-time coordinator of parks and recreation activities in High Springs.

Now, the City of High Springs has decided to hire a full-time coordinator who can build up the city’s recreation programs.

“He does a great job, but he also has a full-time job,” City Manager Ed Booth said of Messina. “We need somebody now who will take it to the next step.”

The city commission met Thursday, Sept. 5, where Booth presented the proposal for adding the position to this year’s budget. The motion to add the job passed 4-1, with Commissioner Linda Clark Gestrin opposing it.

Gestrin said she felt it wasn’t a good time to hire somebody for the position, but she didn’t oppose the general idea and might be receptive to it in the future. For now, the city should focus on basic services like police and the fire department, she said.  

The position would pay around $31,000 a year with around $12,000 in benefits, according to the proposal Booth presented, but that isn’t set in stone. There will be negotiations with the candidates.

“It depends on the person’s qualifications,” Booth said.  

The coordinator for parks and recreation activities would have flexible hours, he said. About 32 hours per week would likely be spent overseeing sports programs, making sure the tennis courts, fields and playgrounds are maintained and managing the community center. About eight hours each week would probably be spent managing the farmers market. The coordinator would have to work some evenings as well. Part of the job would be managing the grants to renovate the sports facilities in the city and organizing activities for children, teens and young adults.

“I’m looking for somebody who is very energetic,” Booth said.

Having a full-time coordinator for parks and recreation activities will increase the quality of life for High Springs’ citizens, he said.

“A city is more than streets, sewer and water,” Booth said.

The next step in the process is presenting a job description to the recreation board. Booth hopes to begin searching for a candidate in November or December and hire somebody soon after.


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W - Diner DSC 1362HIGH SPRINGS – Classic cars conjuring up images of the 1950s filled the lot outside The Diner in High Springs last week during a celebration marking what the new owners hope will be a new era for the restaurant.

On Friday, Aug. 30, The Diner, formerly known as Floyd’s Diner, had its grand reopening from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. The restaurant was bought in late May by husband-and-wife duo Kim and Jerry Wakefield. Though it didn’t really close down when ownership changed, the reopening symbolizes a fresh start for the restaurant, said manager Beth Citta.

“The reputation we got from the old place is not what it should be,” she said. Now all the changes have been finalized.

The new owners plan to use more fresh ingredients from local farmers. In addition, they are using a new distributor for the rest of the ingredients. Some tweaks to old recipes have been made, and new additions can be found on the menu.

“The buffalo chicken sandwich is our top seller,” Citta said, at least when it comes to the new food choices. The new owners hail from Bishop’s Stortford in England, so they have incorporated English elements into the menu, such as fish and chips.

The consensus from several regulars of the diner seems to be that the quality had dipped in the last six or so years.

Customer John Blaine complained about the previous owner using a scale to measure the precise amount of ingredients he put in Blaine’s sundaes.

“This is a real sundae,” he said during the reopening, when the waiter handed him his treat from across the bar.

The food is just as good as ever with the Wakefields as the owners, but Blaine has noticed he gets larger portions.

“They really are on the money,” he said, noting how they no longer use scales to measure content.

“They hire good people here,” Blaine said. “The service is excellent.”

All day, vintage cars, some for sale, were parked outside the diner to drive home the 1950s motif. At 4 p.m., the classic rock, folk and blues band Moondogs took the stage outside. At 7 p.m., the High Springs police brought in the Blues Brothers Soul Band in a police car, reenacting a scene from their namesake film.

“I’ve seen both of them before,” Blaine said of the bands. “Both of them are excellent.”

The Diner plans to hold music events once a month, manager Citta said.

About 70 people had dined at the restaurant by about 3:30 p.m., but Citta said she was hoping for about 500 people.

Jerry and Kim Wakefield lived in France for the past several years, but decided to move to another country.

“The Euro isn’t doing too well at the moment,” said Jerry Wakefield. “We felt like America was a good place to be.”

They looked at several restaurants in Florida, before deciding on High Springs. Jerry said he loves the classic cars and 1950s aesthetic.

The couple came over on a business visa.

“Basically, the idea is we buy a business and employ Americans,” he said.

Aside from the American paperwork, a major challenge for the duo has been reversing the reputation of the restaurant.

“The place doesn’t have a good name, if I’m being honest,” he said.

When Floyd’s Diner opened in 2001, it did have a good name. “For the last six years, it hasn’t had any of that,” Jerry said.

The Wakefields are confident they can restore The Diner to its former glory.

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W - Silver Springs gate IMG-20130725-00019OCALA – Silver Springs in Ocala will soon be a completely different park.

The State of Florida, which currently leases the land for Silver Springs to a company that manages it as a private park, will take over management Oct. 1 and incorporate it into the state park system.

In order to transition Silver Springs into a typical state park, some of the features will be removed, said Rick Mercer, director of operations for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Activities such as jeep rides and exotic animal displays will be gone, Mercer said, in order to bring Silver Springs more in line with a standard state park.

“The mission of the Florida park system is to provide resource-based recreation while preserving, interpreting and restoring natural and cultural resources,” said Matt Mitchell, spokesman for the Florida Park Service. The exotic animals and jeep rides “are not really the more passive elements of recreation that we promote,” Mercer said.

The goal is to get people to enjoy the natural Florida, Mitchell and Mercer said. Some activities, such as the glass-bottom boat rides and kayaking, will still be available for an additional fee.

Renovations will transform the look of the park, they said. Exotic plants that have invaded Silver Springs are being removed. These plants have a negative impact on the native flora, while detracting from the natural look of the park, Mitchell said. “This allows the propagation and spread of natural plant communities that should be there,” Mercer said. Many of the exotic plants are dead and decaying.

The infrastructure will be renovated to conform to the way other state parks look, including paint jobs with more muted tones that blend in better with the natural scenery. Visitors will be able to see the real Florida, Mercer and Mitchell said, with the park better representing the local area.

“The park over time will become more native in its appearance,” Mercer said.

The glass-bottom boats will be stripped apart and rebuilt. Engineering projects to improve drainage systems and water quality will be undertaken.

With the state running the park, Mercer and Mitchell said there would be a bigger focus on conservation and protecting the water quality of Silver Springs.

“A private entity has to make money,” Mercer said, “but the environment is the bottom line to us.”

“I firmly believe that in five years, you’ll see a significant increase to the environmental conditions in the park,” he added.

As a state park, it will cost $5 per person or $8 per vehicle with up to eight people to enter the park. Hours will be from 8 a.m. to sunset, every day of the year. Silver Springs will be combined with Silver State Park to form one entity.

Volunteers and concessioners will play a major role in running Silver Springs, Mitchell said. Canoeing, kayaking and some event planning will be outsourced to third parties.

Residents in the Ocala area have given overwhelmingly positive feedback over the changes, Mercer said.

“I think the local residents are going to be extremely pleased,” he said. Even with some attractions, such as the glass-bottom boats remaining, the main feature for the visitors will be the natural scenery.

“First and foremost, they are going to enjoy the beauty of natural Florida,” Mercer said.

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W - literacy dayHIGH SPRINGS – Silver Sovereign, the snow-colored, blue-eyed newly born horse will be making his public debut at O’Leno State Park soon.

The foal, whose barn name is Little Prince, was born the same day and time as the new prince in England. At only 14 inches at birth, he is one of the smallest foals born at Gentle Carousel, a company which breeds horses for therapy. He and his mother, Liberty, will be visiting with kids for a short time early in the day Saturday, Sept. 7 as part of the “Where Tales Meet Trails” event at the O’Leno State Park.

The event runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“This will be his first outing,” said one of Little Prince’s owners, Debbie Garcia-Bengochea. “He can only stay a short time because he is so young,” she said.

Children of all ages are invited to the annual event on the grounds of O’Leno State Park, six miles north of High Springs on U.S. Highway 441. Book authors, storytellers and book illustrators will be there, along with games for the visitors to play.

Admission is free by showing a library card, library book or by donating a new or gently used family-appropriate book. Some of the donated books are given out during the festival as prizes, said event coordinator, Cynthia Preston, O’Leno Park Service specialist.

The event is designed to promote literacy and spark an interest in reading among young people.

Any books left over are given to Gentle Carousel to leave with children as they visit children’s hospitals and rehabilitation centers around the country.

Garcia-Bengochea is just one of the authors who will be on hand to read the books they’ve written. Gentle Carousel’s award winning literacy program, Reading is Magic, brings real miniature horses dressed in appropriate character costumes to help illustrate stories for the children in an effort to bring books to life for them.

Each reader has their own booth spread out around the pavilion in the picnic area. Park volunteers will have games set up in the picnic area near the river for kids to enjoy, Preston said. A bean-bag toss and a book walk, similar to a cake walk, but with the prize of a book, will be just some of the games children can expect.

Park volunteer Ann Dominy will lead an adventure walk, where children stop and read sections of a book at certain points in the walk.

Another highlight for older children and adults will be a visit from Valerie Rivers, park manager at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings State Park. She will be reading excerpts from “The Yearling” in honor of the 75th Anniversary of its publishing. She will be reading in the pavilion and also will have her own booth for those who would like to visit and learn more.

Author and book illustrator Sandra Poucher, who has written “The Taming of the Slough,A Field Guide to the Critters of Florida's Springs” and “Speleological and Karst Glossary of Florida and the Caribbean” will be sharing some of the drawings she did for her books and will work with children to do illustrations of their own.

High Springs’ resident Diane Eastman will be dressed as Mother Goose and will be reading stories to children in her booth. Other High Springs readers will be Nancy Habig and Linda Lenseth, from Sally’s Sensibles in High Springs. “They always decorate their booth to illustrate the book they are reading,” Preston said. “They are a lot of fun and have been doing this for children for several years.”

Also, High Springs librarian Beth Noll will be one of the readers this year.

Linda Williams and several other ladies from the Daughters of the American Revolution will be reading excerpts from historical novels about the Revolutionary War.

Friends of O’Leno will have an information booth set up with cookies and drinks for everyone. For those who want more than a snack, Jeff Runde, from Branford, will have hot dogs and drinks for sale.

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ALACHUA – The citizens of York County in South Carolina came together in the late 1990s to address problems with their county’s public roads. They made a list of the road improvement projects they wanted to see finished, and they got their county commission to put them on the ballot.

The Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce is looking at York County as a case study on how to improve the roads and other modes of transportation in Alachua County. During a Chamber of Commerce meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 3 in Alachua, members of the public and the local business community came to discuss a proposal on how on how to work through the citizenry to determine transportation project priorities that could be funded through a one-cent sales tax.

The idea is for a bottom-up movement in which the citizens of Alachua County make a list ranking the priority of each transportation project, said Kamal Latham, vice president of public policy for the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce. Projects would be scheduled in order, and completion of one project would be assured before moving on to the next priority.

The proposal is in the dialogue stage, so elements are fluid and not set in stone.

The residents of the county could bring it forward through a petition, or have the county commission put it on the ballot.

The projects would be paid for with a one cent sales tax that the Chamber of Commerce recommends last no longer than eight years.  

“They used a bottom-up process where they worked through the citizens,” Latham said of York County. "Under this collaborative approach, their various municipalities worked together to address an inadequate transportation system, which helped unify many communities," Latham said in an interview with Alachua County Today.

Poor roads have a negative impact on the economy, he said.

“You can’t connect the workforce to the workplace very conveniently.”

The plan would help out not only the cities, but the communities all around the county, Latham said, building a network of better roads. In York County, the model helped rural areas as well as urban ones.

“It wasn’t all downtown city issues,” he said.

Rather than the funds being divided up among the cities, they could be used in a common fund to renovate roads or complete other projects throughout the county as chosen by voters.

Distrust of the county commission was a prevalent theme among the citizens who spoke at the meeting. Several raised concerns about how the people of Alachua County would make sure the money would be used for its intended purpose.

Ted Wilson, of the Alachua Chamber of Commerce, asked how the county commission could be held accountable to the list of priorities rather than taking money for its pet projects.

Latham said there would have to be a dialogue about issues just like that.

Also from the Alachua Chamber of Commerce, David Pope said the county has the worst of both worlds. “We’re taxed too much and we have terrible roads,” he said.

Alachua Mayor Gib Coerper supported the idea of a ground-up movement to get the county in line with what the residents want.

“It’s time for us to say no,” he said. “This is what we want to see happen here.”

The debate over the plan to use York County’s model for transportation projects will play out over the next several months, Latham said.

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W - Easton Olympic Rings DSC 1330NEWBERRY – Newberry joined a list of proud cities Friday. That list boasts the likes of New York, Chicago, Atlanta and San Antonio. They did so with the Easton Newberry Sports Complex receiving a Community Olympic Development Program (CODP) status for archery Friday, Aug. 30. The city is one of only 10 in the nation to receive such a designation and only the second of its kind to showcase archery.

“The city earned this designation after almost two years of working towards it and getting a USA Archery endorsement,” said Bobbi Ullman, a United States Olympic Committee representative.

The ceremony took place Friday morning at the Easton Newberry Sports Complex, located at 24880 NW 16th Ave. in Newberry. The junior archers kicked things off with an open shooting session that started at 10:30 a.m.

Around noon, the athletes, their families and some Newberry residents made their way into the gymnasium-turned-ballroom for a luncheon and the CODP presentation.

In attendance at the ceremony were Bobbi Ullman, London Olympic men’s team archery silver medalist Jake Kaminski, Easton Sports Development Foundation vice president, Don Rabska, and Easton Sports Development Foundation president, Greg Easton.

Everyone near the event seemed to be brimming with excitement, but it would be hard to match the enthusiasm that belonged to Robert Turner, head archery coach at the complex.

“To try to explain what this means for our kids is incredibly difficult,” Turner said when asked how this could improve the facility. “This will give every athlete the opportunity to try archery in a professional setting, with top notch coaching, equipment and facilities.”

Turner began his archery career at the age of 15, ending up with five national championships in his native Australia. He worked with the Australian National Team before coming to the Easton Foundation three years ago. He has also been involved with the United States National Team, a relationship that helped to put the small-town complex on the map.

When the luncheon was coming to a close, the attendees were moved back into the room where the first shooting session took place so the wall displaying the CODP logo could be unveiled. The junior archers gathered along the wall with Greg Easton and together pulled the covering off. The consensus among the event-goers seemed to be that it was a rewarding moment for those who worked so hard.

“While this is about establishing an Olympic pipeline, it’s also more than that,” Rabska said. “It brings me joy to see a community come together and earn something like this.”

The excitement of the event was also multiplied with the attendance of Jake Kaminski, a silver medalist at the London Olympics. Kaminski has been a professional for seven years and said he wished he could have had the support from a great facility when he was first beginning in archery.

“For these kids to get proper coaching and get started on the right foot is so invaluable,” Kaminski said.

The Easton Newberry Sports Complex is home for upwards of 200 archers for classes each week said Turner. The students range in experience from first-time shooters to having two or three years already under their belt. On top of being honored with the CODP status, the complex will also play host to the Florida Archery Association Federation of International Target Archery State Championship Sunday, Sept. 8.

The motivation behind the United States Olympic Committee creating the CODP designation is not just to expand the Olympic pipeline but also to provide youths with an opportunity to participate in Olympic sports. Now with even greater support, the community of Newberry will be able to continue to offer a high level of instruction to these athletes, Ullman said.

“Going to London and being with track stars and athletes of all sports, and being able to feel the same, was a dream come true,” Kaminski said. “If this kind of program can help someone make the change to being a professional easier, it will be incredible.”

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HIGH SPRINGS – Wild Spaces and Public Places oversight committee members met in the Santa Fe Room of the historic High Springs Elementary School and Community Center to see how their $538,238 in sales tax funds have been spent.

Wild Spaces and Public Places is a two-year, half-cent sales tax initiative approved by the voters in 2008, paying for land acquisition and construction projects in the county.

“For the last three or four meetings, the committee has been meeting in the cities where grant funds were distributed to see how the tax money was used,” said Ramesh Buch, Wild Spaces and Public Places staff liaison and program manager for Alachua County Forever, dedicated to preserving the history of the area. He explained that committee members received photographs and cost breakdowns as each municipality worked on their projects, but most of the committee members had never actually seen the finished projects. “This year they decided the best way to see the work that had been done was to hold a meeting in those cities,” he said.

Some cities have not used all of the money allotted to them. However, High Springs has completed their projects and has used all their funds.

During the meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 28, City Manager Ed Booth took the small group on a tour of the renovated school and community center to see those improvements, answering questions along the way. He talked about the previous condition of the building and was not only able to show before pictures, but also took them to see two rooms that had not been renovated due to funding limitations. Booth explained that he was still searching for additional grant funds to complete the renovation of those rooms and hoped to be able to do so sometime in the future.

“I think it’s a great project that has historical significance for the people of High Springs,” said John Martin, Florida League of Cities representative on the oversight committee.

“Although I am not from High Springs, I can understand the significance of saving the school building. In Hawthorne, the school I went to and my dad went to has been torn down,” he said. “I wish we could have preserved it like they did in High Springs. I commend the city and residents for making the choice to save the building. The only problem I heard from the city manager was that people did not know the building was available to rent, but they are working on that issue and I have no doubt that will soon change,” he said.

During the tour, the museum was open and museum displays were being worked on. Committee members were able to see the room and how it was being put to use since the building’s reopening this year. In addition, committee members said that using the building for office space and to rent out to the public was the intended use of the building in their opinion.

“Before the renovation, the building was condemnable,” Booth said. “Floors were falling in and $44,000 went to the cost of demolishing one wing of the building next to the post office.”

An additional $300,000 in historic preservation grant funds went into repairing the roof, replacing windows, painting and other façade improvements. The city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) put the bulk of the money into the building at $450,000, according to Booth. “All told, $1,340,000 was spent to demolish, renovate the inside and outside of the building and make it habitable,” Booth said.

In addition to the $431,028 from the half-cent tax, which was spent on the inside of the school building, records show that another $85,271 was spent on the Civic Center, $6,913 was spent on parking improvements at Civic Center Park and $12,026 was spent on construction of public restrooms at Catherine Taylor Park.

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