ALACHUA – The City of Alachua will cut the ribbon on a recreation center expansion project Thursday, May 17, nearly six months after city officials sealed the deal on the purchase of the 105-acre parcel of land in December.

The ceremony will celebrate Project Legacy, an endeavor that involved raising $1.2 million to acquire a large tract of undeveloped land adjacent to the Hal Brady Recreation Complex.

After more than a year of fundraising, in November 2011, county commissioners agreed to provide the last and single largest block of funding needed for the 105-acre expansion. The county’s contribution of $500,000 is being taken from bed taxes, fees collected on hotel, motel, campground and similar rentals.  The last-minute funding agreement was critical as the city’s contract to purchase was set to expire Dec. 31.

The additional land more than quintuples the original 25-acre recreation complex, bringing the entire site to a whopping 130 acres.  Much of the newly-acquired property had already been used occasionally, when the city hosted large events, like its annual Fourth of July celebration and sports tournaments.

In exchange for the county’s contribution to the purchase, the City of Alachua has committed to building three multi-purpose arenas with seating and lighting that could be used for lacrosse, a growing sport, among other activities.  Those arenas would come at an estimated cost of $300,000, city officials say.

The public is invited to attend the ribbon cutting celebration, which will include area dignitaries and donors to Project Legacy.  City officials say refreshments will be served.

Anyone wishing to attend is asked to enter the Hal Brady Recreation Complex via Peggy Road/County Road 2054.  The event is set to begin at 10 a.m. on Thursday, May 17.

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W_-_Jungle_Friends_IMG_1326_copyKari Bagnall, founder and executive director of Jungle Friends, is hopeful that the primate sanctuary will find funding to expand beyond its current 12-acre site.

 GAINESVILLE – What years ago was a vacant pasture, today resembles a lush jungle washed in shades of vibrant green, featuring an abundance of plant life and lively monkeys swinging every which way.

Jungle Friends Primate Sanctuary, located at 13915 north State Road 121 between Gainesville and LaCrosse, lies just outside of the hustle of Gainesville’s college life.  Kari Bagnall, founder and executive director of Jungle Friends., a non-profit organization, is hopeful that the sanctuary will be able to expand from the 12.5 treed acres set back from the highway.

“When I obtained the property that Jungle Friends is on now it was just pasture,” said Bagnall. “I planted trees and made sure that any habitat that was built to house the monkeys was one where they could be in a forest setting and I would do the same with the land adjacent, if we are able to buy it.”

The 20-acre property, which adjoins the Jungle Friends back gate, is being offered to the sanctuary by owner Earl Vining for $250,000, lower than the $295,000 market price.

Currently Jungle Friends has been using donated monies to expand on its own property, building more habitats for its full primate community, leaving little money to go toward purchasing the property.

The realtor is looking to have the property sold by summer and Jungle Friends is hoping for donations or someone to buy them the property before it is sold to someone else, Bagnall said.

“We’re almost at capacity right now with approximately 120 monkeys, two lab monkeys coming in a couple of months, and another pet monkey coming next week,” Bagnall said. “I’m happy that there is starting to be a trend in getting monkeys out of laboratories and into sanctuaries, but I’m having to say no to monkeys every week because there just isn’t enough room to hold more and still maintain roomy habitats.”

The expanded property would allow Jungle Friends to build more habitats and take in about 300 more primates, Bagnall said.

“Having the property sold to this sanctuary would mean an even better life for the monkeys here and those who still need a home,” Jungle Friends employee Beverly Keene said.

“These animals are meant to be in the wild, and we try to provide the closest thing to that, a place where the monkeys can interact and move about in our habitats, Keene said.”

“On the outskirts of the property there are some natural wooded areas, which we would leave,” Bagnall said. “There is also a small creek on the property, which we would also leave because we want to keep the land as natural as possible to provide a good home for the monkeys.”

Bagnall said she would plant more trees on the new property, as she did on her current property, planting them in the habitats where the monkeys reside in order to create a jungle like environment.

“It is absolutely extraordinary how well the monkeys are taken care of,” said Joelle Kerdier, 61, Jungle Friends volunteer. “The monkeys live in greenery as close to the jungle setting as possible, and the setting is one of the most important aspects, when taking care of wild animals.”

The sustainable efforts incorporated in the sanctuary include using sticks and logs and donated fire hose and rope to make ladders and swings on which the primates play.

In addition, each habitat is constructed with fencing materials so that the structures can be mended easily when trees grow taller or to provide a more spacious area for the monkeys to swing around in.

Bagnall said she would like to increase the sustainability efforts of the sanctuary to include gardens where fruits and vegetables can be grown in the fertile black soil to feed the primates.

Also, a move toward using solar power in the sanctuary, especially if it is expanded, is important to cut back on electricity in the environment and minimize the expenses of using electricity to power it, Bagnall said.

In addition, the bigger property would mean better care of the primates that reside in the sanctuary.

“One of the major things we’d like to do with the other property is to build a larger on-site veterinary facility for the primates which will provide full care,” Bagnall said.  This would also allow for expansion of the facility’s internship program to a whole-health program, where interns would learn vet-tech procedures that would teach how to socialize monkeys coming into the sanctuary, as many new monkeys have never interacted with other monkeys.

Acquiring the new property would allow Jungle Friends to not only better the lives of the primates, but also better the environment in which those monkeys need to survive and thrive, said Taja Fulmore, 33, a new employee at Jungle Friends.

Now the efforts for the sanctuary are focused on getting donations that will contribute to the purchase of the neighboring property.

Bagnall said donations have been quite limited because people aren’t aware of the problem of getting primates to sanctuaries.

“We first have to educate people that there is a problem, that there are a lot of monkeys in research, and pet monkeys that need homes, and having the extended land will provide more space for those monkeys in need of a home,” Bagnall said.

For more information on how to help or make a donation, contact Bagnall at 386-462-7779 or by email at kari@junglefriends.org. Also, online donations can be made at http://www.junglefriends.org.

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HIGH SPRINGS – Residents of High Springs may face higher sewer and water bills in the near future as the city attempts to stop the drain placed on funds by the debt-ridden sewer system.

During a city commission workshop on Thursday, May 3, the commission directed City Finance Services Director Helen McIver to calculate numbers based on a five percent increase in the sewer base rate for both residential and commercial users, and a jump from 5,000 to 10,000 gallons of usage allowed on residential sewer bills without extra charge. Vice-Mayor Bob Barnas also proposed a $10 monthly charge on vacant properties as the City has already invested in the infrastructure to serve those properties.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction to cure the problem of our bill,” Barnas said.

Currently, the city finds itself $8.5 million in debt to pay for the sewer system. As it is now, residents pay $34.41 for the first 5,000 gallons of sewer usage each month, and commercial users pay $46.44 for the first 5,000 gallons used.

In an earlier commission meeting, Barnas told the commission that sewer rates would have to be set at $63.86 to cover the cost of the sewer debt and its operating expenses, but that would not provide enough for a profit.

“If we don’t get it corrected in the next few years, the state will step in and they will correct it. They will raise your fees and they won’t ask you,” said High Springs Mayor Dean Davis. Even though he ran on a platform on not raising taxes, Davis said during the meeting that, at the time, he did not realize how dire the situation was.

Sewer is the city’s biggest concern, said McIver.  Even with money being transferred from the water fund, the sewer has eroded its reserves.  McIver estimated that the city needs an additional $75,000 to $100,000 in sewer revenue annually to keep the sewer fund afloat, especially since there has been a decline in water revenue over the past four years.

With rising maintenance costs and warranties expiring, McIver said she would lean toward the latter to cover the future expenses.

During the May 3 workshop, the commission agreed not to increase water or garbage rates for the time being. However, a $1 increase on garbage was discussed, and may be looked at in the future. The city considered an audit on garbage users to ensure all those using city garbage services are being charged.

The commission hopes to use the USDA $1.6 million grant funding to conduct a study to evaluate the performance of the sewer system.

City manager Jeri Langman said the city’s engineering firm maintains that similar systems in other communities have a significantly longer lifespan while experiencing fewer problems, adding that the study “…would go a long way in helping us provide better service to our residents, to find out what the issues are…”

If USDA approves use of the funds to pay for the study, the city will then send it out for bid. After bids are received, the City will have 60 days to provide plans to the USDA.

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W_-_I75_InterchangeThe Florida Department of Transportation will be conducting a workshop to discuss construction of a second southbound access ramp on the south side of U.S. Highway 441 in Alachua.

 ALACHUA – Major improvements to the Interstate 75 interchange at U.S. Highway 441 in Alachua could be coming soon as a proposal is on the table to add a second southbound access ramp to the interstate.

The additional access ramp is expected to ease traffic congestion and safety concerns at the interchange area, which serves tens of thousands of motorists daily.

A workshop on the possible improvements is being held later this month.  The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) has invited the public and owners of property surrounding the interchange to participate and provide feedback on the proposal, which if acted upon, would likely result in major traffic changes in the area.

FDOT staff will be on hand to discuss the project and answer questions, officials with the department say.  The workshop is slated to include a brief presentation followed by public comment.

Much of the traffic congestion surrounding the I-75 interchange in Alachua is due to interstate accesses and exits being constrained only to the north side of U.S. Highway 441.  But improvements proposed by FDOT would overcome some of those limitations.

“The department is interested in these improvements because they would reduce traffic congestion and accidents caused by motorists entering and exiting the interstate in that area,” FDOT District Two Public Information Director Gina Busscher said in an interview Wednesday.

The project has been on FDOT’s radar for several years, she said, although the ability to move ahead with it had been hindered by a longstanding railroad easement behind KFC.

The proposed project would involve acquiring the KFC property, which is adjacent to the interstate to allow for the construction of a second southbound access ramp on the south side of U.S. 441.  The new ramp would allow motorists traveling toward Gainesville on U.S. 441 to access I-75 southbound without having to turn left and cross oncoming traffic.

“This project is still in the very early preliminary stages,” Busscher said, adding that the department had not yet contacted property owners to discuss purchasing right of way.  At this point, she said, the department is looking for feedback from the public to determine how it might proceed.

With an estimated design and construction cost of $8 million, the improvements would be funded through both state and federal coffers.  That price tag does not include easement and property acquisition, for which FDOT currently has a budgeted $350,000 set aside.

The possible addition of a new access ramp does not seem to be a long-term pipe dream, as Busscher said the preliminary project timeline would have FDOT bidding out the design and construction in February 2015.  But the project could move more quickly than that if funding sources and other obstacles are cleared, she said.  FDOT is working toward advancing the project bidding to as early as the latter half of 2013, she added.

A part of the proposal also includes the construction of a park and ride facility in the same vicinity as the proposed access ramp.

If opened in 2016, the new ramp would be estimated serve some 4,800 vehicles per day according to an FDOT analysis.  A 2009 study of the interchange showed that each day, roughly 24,000 vehicles traveled along U.S. 441 in the vicinity of the interchange.  Meanwhile, 55,000 vehicles were logged on I-75 just south of the interchange.

A new I-75 interchange in Alachua has long been discussed, largely due to the space limitations of the current U.S. 441 interchange.  FDOT has made some changes to it in recent years, alleviating some of the congestion and safety concerns.  But FDOT officials have been aware for several years that the existing interchange does not meet the demands of existing traffic, especially at peak times.

The addition of lanes at the I-75 northbound off ramp, adjustments to a southbound access lane and the synchronization of traffic signals on U.S. 441 are all changes made by FDOT in the last several years.

The public workshop is being held in the City of Alachua commission chambers on May 31at 4:30 p.m.

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HIGH SPRINGS – With the deadline regarding the Alachua County Combined Communications Center (CCC) fast approaching, the City of High Springs plans to hold workshops to discuss the cost and possibility of moving emergency dispatch operations back into the city.

On July 1, the city must report to the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office the decision it makes regarding the CCC. If High Springs chooses to stay with the County, the city will be required to rename its streets and change street signs to be consistent with the rest of the county.

Alachua County operates on a grid system, which is centered on Gainesville’s University Avenue and Main Street. Because street addresses in High Springs do not conform to the grid system, when a call comes into the CCC, the current street names direct emergency responders to two separate addresses, one in High Springs and one in another part of Alachua County.

The cost of returning to a city-operated dispatch may be more than the city can afford, even though the commission seems to be in favor of bringing it back. Ron Langman, City Manager Jeri Langman’s husband, worked with city employee Ginger Travers and city Finance Services Director Helen McIver to provide the commission with estimates of the additional costs High Springs may incur if the transition occurs.

Ron Langman said the city could end up paying between $104,958 and $130,486 more a year than they already pay with the Alachua County Combined Communication Center. Annually, it is estimated the city’s local dispatch could cost between $225,072 and $246,100. Currently, the City of High Springs pays an annual average of $82,111 for the CCC.

Commissioner Linda Gestrin advocates bringing the dispatch back to the city to create autonomy. She said it is a drawing point to people searching for a future hometown that High Springs has its own police department and fire department.

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ALACHUA – The City of Alachua has reason to celebrate after recently receiving a glowing audit report for the 2010-2011 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, 2011.

Alachua achieved unqualified opinions on basic financial statements, federal awards and state project sections, which is the highest rating a city can receive. All comments or concerns from prior years had been addressed, including an issue that could have placed the city in a financial emergency several years ago.

Ron Whitesides of Purvis Gray & Company informed commissioners that a previous $1.7 million deficit in restricted funds had been converted into a $3.6 million excess. While residents faced rate increases, the city managed to turn around all the deteriorating conditions, and Whitesides presented a clean audit to the commission.

“It’s night and day from where we were in 2009,” Commissioner Ben Boukari said.

The 2008-2009 fiscal year audit report, which was presented in early 2010 revealed an unreserved fund balance deficit of $1,720,770 as reported on the governmental funds balance sheet, and unrestricted net assets deficit of $310,782, as reported on the proprietary funds statement of net assets.

Shortly after the auditor’s assessment in 2010, Alachua City Manager Traci Cain met with staff, a meeting which resulted in $1.2 million in cuts from the city’s annual budget. The city raised utility rates, resolved a problem with the utility billing software and implemented a hiring freeze. Due primarily to those actions, the city saw improvements within one fiscal year.

In 2011, at the 2009-2010 audit presentation, the city was in better financial shape as Whitesides reported that the city had reduced its deficit from $1.7 million to $15,771.

After hearing the good news this year resulting from the most recent audit report, the commission thanked Cain and her staff for their hard work.

“I am so proud of the finance department, our management team and the entire staff,” said Cain. “They have worked really hard, especially during these challenging economic times to be creative, to be resourceful, to be diligent and everything that we’ve done to ensure the citizens of Alachua have the infrastructure and the services that they’ve needed to maintain the quality of life that they’re used to and that’s attracted so many people to call the Good Life Community home.”

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W_-_Pioneer_Days_IMG_0732_copy

Old West shootouts complete with desperadoes and smoking guns set the stage for the 36th Annual Pioneer Days in High Springs this past weekend.

 HIGH SPRINGS – Steven Warren stood armed near a house, “Come out, and no one will be hurt,” he shouted across the dirt space.

“Like I’m gonna believe that,” one man barked from the house.

More words were exchanged, but finally Warren gave orders to an armed gang surrounding the area. “Alright boys, let’s take ‘em.”

As the gang started to approach the house, a loud crack interrupted the attack. The men scrambled to take cover as a shootout between the gang and the family inside the house began.

When the gang tried to flank the house, the encroaching attacker fell to the ground with a thud.

He wasn’t really dead, though. The “gang member” was part of the “Not So Young Guns,” a team of men and women who travel around the state performing reenactments.

There were four showings of the reenactment in downtown High Springs Saturday and Sunday. It was part of the 36th Annual Pioneer Days. More than 38 vendors participated in the town’s annual return to the 19th Century time of cowboys, presented by the High Springs Chamber of Commerce.

Ocklawaha resident Barbara W. Silagi watched a man nearby crack a whip on the dirt road. He could kill a rattlesnake with that if he wanted to, she said.

While the whip cracked back and forth, Silagi continued spinning threads of fabric into pendants. She was wearing a floral-printed bonnet and a matching long-sleeved dress that flowed down to the ground.

Silagi wasn’t the only one to dress up for the event. There was a kids costume contest on Saturday, featuring children from toddlers to 9-year-olds. Alyssa Bunkley, 4, of Gilchrist County, donned a lime green bonnet and matching long dress that her great-grandmother made for her. She tied for first place in her age division.

Wildwood resident Harry Driggers showed his enthusiasm for the pioneer days in a different way. He brought his prized covered wagon on Saturday. The wagon was originally purchased in Montana in 1912. Driggers purchased the sheep herder wagon in 2007 and restored it to look authentic.

Driggers said his interest in the pioneer era stemmed from his father, who was one of the “old Florida cracker cowboys.” His father worked the cattle near Paynes Prairie, Driggers said.

Retired from a career in law enforcement, Driggers returns to a more peaceful lifestyle in Wildwood. He said the wagon both reminds him of his heritage, but is also kind of like a toy for him.

“When you get old you gotta have something to play with,” Driggers said.

Other vendors presented their products in a more modern way. Melissa Diedricks, of Ambrosia Candies, didn’t dress up in pioneer costumes to sell peanut brittle, but enjoyed seeing the costumed visitors walk up and down the street of vendors. “We love all the costumes,” she said.

Another vendor, Shauna Lee, of High Springs, came to advertise her new business, Vintage Fudge. Lee said that the fudge shop will open on Main Street, across from The Great Outdoors Restaurant.

Visitors could enjoy live music from Cowboy Dave, Velvetta Underground, Chris Newman and other musicians at the gazebo, judge the pie contest entries at Heritage Village and then grab a seat for the shootout.

Many of the visitors said the food and atmosphere keep them coming back to the annual event, but the younger visitors were intrigued by the bounce houses and rock climbing in the Kids Korral. Kaelyn Kinney, 5, of High Springs, said her favorite part of the event was the slide.

Sandra Webb, the events manager for the High Springs Chamber of Commerce, said that although this year’s parade was cancelled, she feels like this year’s event was a success. She said the volunteers from the Criminal Justice Academy at Newberry High School ensured the event ran smoothly.

“Everyone seems like they’re having a good day,” she said.

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