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by RAY CARSON

Today Reporter

HIGH SPRINGS – Six miles north of High Springs on U.S. Highway 441 is a unique state park called O’Leno. The park was one of Florida’s first state parks, originally opened in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps who built log cabins and a suspension bridge that crosses the river.

Located along the banks of the Santa Fe River, which is a tributary of the Suwannee River, the park covers over 6,000 acres and features sinkholes, hardwood hammocks, river swamps and sand hills. It features hiking and biking trails, canoeing, fishing, picnic facilities and camping. Overnight visitors can stay at 61 RV sites, primitive tent camping or, if booked far enough in advance, one of the 17 log cabins near the river.

Santa Fe River Flows Underground

What makes the park unique is that the Santa Fe River suddenly disappears, traveling three miles underground to resurface at River Rise Park. Visitors can walk a shaded trail along the river bank and then cross over to the other side on the three-mile land bridge. This natural bridge has served as a crossroads between east and west Florida for centuries.

Native American trails converged at this land bridge that provided a dry crossing of the Santa Fe River. When the Spanish occupied Florida in 1513 they built a line of missions between Saint Marks and Saint Augustine and made use of the same native trails, renaming the route “el Camino Real,” the Royal Road.

The road fell into disuse in the late1700s as Spanish influence waned. Between raids from the French and English, Indian raids, and disease, the native population declined and the missions and settlements were abandoned. Florida became a liability for Spain and in 1819 they ceded the territory to the United States. As settlers moved in, the federal government provided money for a road across the upper part of the state and tasked the Army with creating it. John Bellamy, who was a wealthy plantation owner, was contracted to create the eastern part, and Bellamy Road was created.

Keno – The Original O’Leno

It was only fitting that a town would be built along the banks of the nearby river. A pioneer town was started by 1840 by a man named Henry Matier. The town was referred to as Keno, which was a common gambling game at the time. As the town of Keno grew, the main livelihood was the mills, which were powered by the river. Two grist mills, six cotton gins and one cotton seed oil gin with a circular saw mill for lumber were in operation. A dry kiln, the only one of its kind in the area, was also in use.

By the 1870s Keno had a general merchandise store, owned and operated by a well-known proprietor by the name of Colonel George M. Whetson. Some say Whetston called the town Keno because he considered it to be a risky business venture. The town also had a large hotel with a door on all four sides. It also had a restaurant, livery stable, blacksmith, doctor and general store. In 1876, Colonel Whetson applied for a post office for the town of Keno. The postal department denied the request due to the name Keno meaning gambling, so Whetston then changed the name to Leno to justify that it was a decent town. The post office was put upstairs above the general store, along with the telegraph office. In 1890, Colonel Whetston moved the post office to the sister town of Mikesville, three miles away.

Florida Forest Service

In 1894, there was a rumor that a railroad from Alligator, today’s Lake City, was going to come through the area of Leno. However, the train bypassed the town and went to Fort White instead. This spelled the end for the town and the people of Leno moved on to other communities in the area. The last record of the town of Leno was in 1896. Although the town was no longer inhabited, the area remained a popular place for residents of nearby towns to gather for picnics and swimming. It was often referred to as “Old Leno,” which was eventually shortened to O’Leno, the name still used today.

In 1935, the Florida Forest Service purchased the property where the town had been located. During the Great Depression, workers under the federal Work Progress Administration (WPA), with help from Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), developed the area for a forest service training camp, building roads, cabins, the suspension bridge and other buildings. Camp O’Leno opened in 1938 as a Florida Forest Service training camp. It became a state park in 1940, and was one of the original nine state parks in the Florida Park Service.

Most of the buildings on the site date back to that time period with additional trails and camping sites added later. The true beauty of the park is the diversity of environments and the differences each season brings. The park is open 365 days a year from 8 a.m. until sundown. Entry fee for day visits is $5. For more information or camping reservations call 386-454-1853.

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GAINESVILLE -- Alachua Habitat for Humanity has named longtime residential homebuilder David Weiss as its new Chief Operations Officer.

Mr. Weiss started in early November in the position that was created when Executive Director Scott Winzeler was promoted to Chief Outreach and Development Officer earlier this year. While Mr. Winzeler will focus on developing the resources needed to expand the mission and advocate within the community for the needs of affordable housing, Mr. Weiss will handle day-to-day operations of the affiliate.

Mr. Weiss has spent much of his 30-year career as owner of a large Midwestern company that built up to 185 homes a year which was a draw to Alachua Habitat as it is looking to ramp up its construction program. “The beauty of Dave’s resume is that he has been a homebuilder with years of experience building hundreds of homes,” Mr. Winzeler said. “Applying the practices he has learned through this process to build affordable housing will enable this affiliate to fulfill its main mission; helping more families obtain affordable housing.”

Mr. Weiss holds a bachelor’s degree in construction management from Purdue University. “I’m very excited,“ Mr. Weiss said of the new job. “Our 10-year plan is to double the number of families we serve and I plan to implement processes to make us run well and efficiently so we can avoid growing pains,” he said. “We owe it to our families, donors, volunteers and staff to make sure we run as smoothly as possible. We want what we do to serve the needs of our community at every level.”                                                                           

Founded in 1986, Alachua Habitat for Humanity is the local affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International. We envision a world where everyone has a decent place to live and we work towards that vision by bringing people together to build strength, stability, and self-reliance through shelter. To accomplish these goals, we invite people of all backgrounds, races, and religions to build houses together in partnership with local families in need of affordable housing. Through volunteer labor and donations of money and materials, Alachua Habitat has built more than 145 homes in the local community. Habitat houses are sold to homeowner families at no profit and financed with affordable loans. For more information visit www.alachuahabitat.org

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ORLANDO — The City of Alachua, along with the Florida Municipal Power Agency (FMPA), and in conjunction with 11 other Florida municipal electric utilities and Florida Renewable Partners, LLC, broke ground on the Florida Municipal Solar Project, one of the largest municipal-backed solar projects in the nation.

A total of approximately 900,000 solar panels will be installed at two sites in Osceola County and at one site in Orange County. That’s enough solar panels to fill 900 football fields or stretch from Jacksonville Beach to Key West two and a half times. The total generating capability will be 223.5 megawatts of zero-emissions energy, which is enough to power 45,000 typical Florida homes.

The 12 local utilities that will purchase power from the project include: Alachua, Bartow, Beaches Energy Services (Jacksonville Beach), Fort Pierce Utilities Authority, Homestead, Keys Energy Services (Key West), Kissimmee Utility Authority, Lake Worth Beach, Ocala, Orlando Utilities Commission, Wauchula and Winter Park.

“We are pleased to start construction on a project of this size, which will enable us to provide affordable, emissions-free solar power to our customers,” said FMPA’s Jacob Williams, general manager and CEO of the Orlando-based wholesale power agency. “By working together, the cities can build a larger, more efficient facility to help make solar energy cost effective.”

Construction on phase one of the project will continue through mid-2020. When complete, the power output from this project will be equal to 37,250 average-size rooftop solar systems.

To enhance efficiency, the ground-mounted solar panels will be installed with a computer-controlled tracking system that moves the panel to track the sun as it travels from east to west, maximizing power output.

Buying and installing the solar panels in such large quantities and using technology to make them as efficient as possible, the cost of solar energy from this project is about one-third the cost of electricity from a typical private, rooftop system.

FMPA is serving as the project coordinator, and the 12 municipal utilities, who are member-owners of FMPA, will purchase power from the project. The builder, owner and operator of the solar farms is Florida Renewable Partners, whose parent company is the world’s largest generator of renewable energy from wind and the sun.

While construction of the first phase is underway, FMPA and its members are working to expand its solar power generation. The utilities are looking to grow the project to a total of 375 megawatts by 2023. 

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ALACHUA COUNTY — A higher percentage of Alachua County Public Schools students graduated on time in 2019, continuing a steady climb in the district’s graduation rates.

According to figures just released by the Florida Department of Education, Alachua County’s overall graduation rate for 2018 is 88.5%, up from 88% in 2017. For the third straight year local students outperformed their state peers, who graduated at a rate of 86.9 % in 2019.

The 2019 gain represents a five-year increase of more than 14 percentage points in the district’s graduation rate, which was 74.3% in 2015.

According to DOE, Alachua County Public Schools had both a larger ‘cohort’ of seniors and more graduates in 2019. The number of seniors rose from 2021 to 2082, with the number of those earning diplomas increasing from 1779 to 1843.

“I want to applaud our teachers, staff, administrators and particularly our students and their families for all their hard work in getting more of our students across the finish line,” said Superintendent Karen Clarke. “Earning a diploma on time in Florida is not easy, and it’s good to see more of our students rising to the challenge each year.”

Newberry High School has the highest graduation rate in 2019, with 100% of its students graduating on time. Eastside High had the biggest increase, from 92.5% to 94.9%.

The graduation rate for local African-American and Hispanic student also increased this year—from 79.2 % to 79.9% for African Americans and from 83.7% to 90% for Hispanic students.

African-American students at all of the seven high schools operated by Alachua County Public Schools graduated at a higher rate than their state peers in 2019. At six of those schools, the African-American graduation rate was 90% or higher this year.

Newberry High had the highest rate of 100%, while Eastside had the biggest gain in that category as well, with the graduation rate for its African-American students jumping from 84.9% to 91.8%.

“We really drilled into the data for individual kids to see what the challenges were, whether test scores, credit deficiencies or something else,” said Eastside High principal Shane Andrew. “Our teachers and staff worked very hard to provide students with whatever support they needed to meet the graduation requirements.”

                                                      

“This took a team effort, with leadership from the district, hard work by our teachers and staff and great support from our community,” said Newberry High principal James Sheppard. “Whenever we asked for help, they responded.”

“I’m proud that we continue to exceed the state in this very important indicator,” said School Board Chair Eileen Roy. “We’ve certainly made significant gains over the last several years, and we want to keep improving even as the state raises the bar for graduation.”

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ALACHUA — The City of Alachua plans to pursue Safe Routes to School Grant. In an effort to promote and empower the Alachua’s children to walk and bike to school, the City of Alachua will be submitting grant applications to the Florida Safe Routes to School Program to implement infrastructure improvements.

The improvements include a 2,650-foot sidewalk along U.S Highway 441 to benefit Santa Fe High School and 2,350 feet of sidewalk within the Hunter Woods neighborhood to connect to the existing sidewalk system on CR241 to benefit W.W. Irby Elementary School.

Safe Routes to School (SRTS) programs are sustained efforts by parents, schools, community leaders and local, state and federal governments to improve the health and well-being of children by enabling and encouraging them to walk and bicycle to school.

SRTS programs examine conditions around schools and conduct projects and activities that improve safety and reduce traffic and air pollution in the vicinity those schools. As a result, these programs make bicycling and walking to school a safer and more appealing transportation choice, thus encouraging a healthy and active lifestyle from an early age.

In addition to improving safety for children, Safe Routes to School programs can benefit a community’s quality of life by reducing traffic congestion and motor vehicle emissions while increasing opportunities to be more physically active and connect with neighbors. Consequently, SRTS programs can improve safety for all pedestrians and bicyclists in the community.

For more information on the proposed project, contact Adam Hall at 386-418-6100.

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HIGH SPRINGS — A county-wide effort to limit tobacco sales to persons 21 years of age or older appears to have run its course in the city of High Springs. During the Nov. 14 High Springs City Commission meeting, City officials voted unanimously to opt out of the County's “Legal Sales Age 21 ordinance” on first reading of the ordinance.

A second reading of the ordinance in its entirety is anticipated at the Nov. 26 City Commission meeting.

Despite statistics and impassioned pleas by some residents, others see the ordinance as one more way in which the government is interfering in the public’s personal lives. Some also believed that penalties on tobacco sellers was not the way to address the issue.

Chris Rhodes addressed commissioners to make a strong case against approval of the County's ordinance. On the other hand, Tobacco Free Alachua President Victoria Gibney and another member of the organization, Greg King, talked about how youth who begin smoking at a young age continue to be life-long smokers.

King read a letter by High Springs resident Sarah Catalinato, also a member of Tobacco Free Alachua, in which she expressed her dismay at not having the City Commission support the County ordinance.

Although everyone on the High Springs Commission seemed to agree they would not like to see kids smoking at an early age, they expressed their belief that people have to make decisions for themselves and deal with the consequences of their choices.

Commissioner Linda Jones said she would like to see tobacco use stopped, but thought she could not tell an 18-year-old, who can make decisions about whether to serve in the military or who to vote for, that they cannot purchase a pack of cigarettes.

Mayor Byran Williams said he didn't see how raising the age to 21 would result in people not smoking. Commissioner Scott Jamison said at some point, people have to be accountable for what they do. Mayor Williams suggested more education about the dangers of smoking would be a better way to go, in his opinion.

In a roll-call vote, Commissioners voted unanimously to opt out of the County's smoking ordinance. Both sides will have another chance to sway the Commissioners to their way of thinking at the Nov. 26 second and final reading of the opt-out ordinance.

Due to the holidays, the City Commission meeting schedule has been modified and will meet only one more time before the end of the calendar year, on Dec. 12.

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L-R: Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe Trail Project Organizer Linda Rice Chapman and Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe President John Manley proudly display the new sign which reads: The Santa Fe Kiwanis Fitness Trail.

HIGH SPRINGS — On a windy Wednesday, Nov. 13, Kiwanis Club members, funding donors, city officials and interested residents gathered for the unveiling of the sign commemorating the opening of the new Fitness Trail. The trailhead is located behind the High Springs Cemetery at the High Springs Sports Complex and is now open to the public.

The fitness trail, now formally known as The Santa Fe Kiwanis Fitness Trail, was the brainchild of Kiwanis Club member Linda Rice Chapman. Chapman is quick to point out that she was not alone in this project and had a great deal of help from her fellow Kiwanians and the High Springs Parks & Recreation Department, under the leadership at that time of Robert Bassford. She also acknowledged the great support she received from former city manager Ed Booth.

Chapman was, however, instrumental in obtaining the grant funds for the project and keeping everyone focused. The project began in early 2017, with the group clearing a walking trail on weekends. As she says, "Many members of our club and their friends spent countless hours chopping vines and clearing brush."

Although there were setbacks, the group stayed on task and completed Phase 1 of the project. In doing so, they had to battle inclement weather, poison ivy and weed growth that seemed to be akin to the speed at which Jack's beanstalk grew in the nursery storybook.

As Phase 1 continued, club members began looking for grant programs and community support for the project. Luckily, they learned about the Clay Electric Coop, Inc.'s Operation Round Up grant program. Chapman prepared the paperwork and applied for the grant on behalf of the Club. "Clay Electric obviously shared our vision for this community project," said Chapman, "because they awarded the grant to our club."

Six months later, club members learned that the Florida Kiwanis Foundation had a matching grant program. Again they applied and were awarded the grant.

Meanwhile, it had taken so long to obtain the financing that the City went forward with a five-year master plan for recreation. “Our site had morphed into an overflow parking lot,” said Chapman.

A meeting with former recreation director Robert Bassford resulted in grouping the equipment into two pod sites, which ultimately led to finalizing the project.

The City's current Parks & Recreation Director Damon Messina sees potential in not only having the fitness trail at the Sports Complex, but also in ways in which it could be utilized and even expanded in the future. "For instance, I'm hoping we can incorporate the trail into the Frozen Foot event," he said. "I believe we could also expand the fitness trail and do another phase."

The Recreation Department's five-year plan will incorporate lighting, which could make the trail usable even after sunset. During the hot summer months, the light might be a benefit for folks who don't want to exercise in the heat of the day.

“Our five-year plan also proposes a playground in 2021,” Messina said. “That could be a real benefit to parents who want to work out and also keep an eye on their children.”

Messina was quick to praise Bassford and his recreation maintenance person, Dave Sutton, for the work they did to restore and develop the nearby fields. "They did the groundwork, so that's something we don't have to do to use and develop the sports complex," he said. "High Springs has been lucky to have open fields available for recreation. In more congested cities, available land for recreation is difficult to come by."

“This project reaches those people who cannot afford a health club membership and those with no transportation to a gym, even if they could afford membership,” said Chapman. “It gives seniors and others with limited income and transportation an incentive and an opportunity to keep fit at no cost to themselves,” she said.

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