Citizens Academy – Session 8 Update

​​​Participants of the 2024 Alachua County Citizens Academy had one final ride for their crash course in local government this past Thursday during what was their longest session of the class.

This time, participants traveled in a charter bus to explore some of Alachua County’s newest amenities.

The eight-week educational course is run by Donna Bradbrook, the county’s strategic performance manager, and other staff. The program partners with local constitutional officers, judicial officers, the library district, school board and health department to give residents a unique opportunity to learn about various aspects of local government and the daily activities performed by some of the county’s top officials.

Thursday was no different, with participants visiting Buck Bay Flatwood, the Alachua County Sports and Events Center, UF/IFAS Extension Office, the Leveda Brown Environmental Park and much more.

Public Works

The first stop was at the Department of Public Works, where the class gathered to learn about road work and fleet management.

Director Ramon Gavarrete explained how the recent voter-approved Wild Spaces Public Places (WSPP) and Infrastructure surtax has allowed the county to make repairing roads a top priority.

Alachua County has about 700 miles of paved roads and 200 miles unpaved, he said. Over the next few months, Gavarrete said his department is set to begin on about $32 million in road projects.

Learn more about the county’s infrastructure surtax.
Watch Alachua County Talks – Public Works/Roads.

Animal Resources

The bus then headed to the Alachua County Animal Resources and Care facility in northeast Gainesville.

Director Julie Johnson said the shelter is currently at capacity with about 105 dogs and more than 40 cats. The department partners with the local humane society to help with adoptions and services.Animal Services
Johnson said the county is in the final stages of a partnership with the University of Florida to build a state-of-the-art animal shelter that will allow for more room for animals and more programs and training for the public.

Watch Alachua County Talks – Animal Resources.

Buck Bay Flatwood Preserve

Next, the class to a stroll out at Buck Bay Flatwood Preserve, where they were greeted by Land Conservation Manager Andi Christman and Senior Planner Ryan Kennelly.

The 637-acre preserve was purchased in two purchases (2013 and 2019) with WSPP funding. Imperiled plants and animals can be found within the preserve, including hooded pitcher plants, spoon leaf sundews, gopher tortoises and Southern fox squirrels.
Buck Bay
Christman explained how the preserve is critically important to protecting water resources in the area. The entire footprint of the preserve is within the primary and secondary protection zones of the Murphree Wellfield, Gainesville Regional Utilities’ source of drinking water for residents.

Watch Alachua County Talks – Land Conservation.

Rotary Park in Jonesville

The class gathered for a much-needed lunch at the Rotary Park in Jonesville where Parks and Open Spaces Director Jason Maurer explained the work being done around the county.

The department anticipates receiving about $37 million over the 10-year lifespan of the WSPP program.

The parks department currently has several projects underway, including improvements to parking and soccer fields at the Jonesville park, new playgrounds at Veterans Memorial Park, M.K. Rawlings, Copeland and Monteocha parks.

Learn more about WSPP funding for conservation and parks.

Trash collection and recycling

The group then went to the Leveda Brown Environmental Park and Transfer Station to see what happens to all the garbage and recycling throughout the county.

The facility opened in 1998, named after a former county commissioner, has been a leading example throughout North Central Florida of how waste can be managed and recycled.trash
Each day, the facility takes in about 775 tons of trash and recycles another 40 to 45 tons from homes, businesses and rural county collection centers. The site is also home to the Hazardous Waste Collection Center, where electronics and chemicals that are harmful to the environment are properly recycled and disposed of.

Learn more about Alachua County’s recycling efforts.

IFAS Extension

One of the more unique structures for a county department is through the UF/IFAS Extension Office Alachua County. Director Cindy Sanders explained that the cooperative is funded through Alachua County, UF/IFAS and the federal government, all to promote and educate the region about agriculture.

Standing in the new Newberry extension office, Sanders explained that agriculture is one of the county’s primary economic drivers with a $255 million annual impact.
The extension office served over 25,000 agricultural producers last year and offers farmers and residents a range of services, including providing information on best practices, disease and nutrient management, gardening and hosting local food markets.

Alachua County has about 8,000 acres of peanut farms, 4,000 acres of corn for silage, 10,000 acres for vegetables (19th in the state), 2,500 acres for fruit (13th in the state) and about 28,000 cattle (12th in the state).

For fruit alone, IFAS estimates Alachua County farmers have about $24 million in sales annually.

Watch the extension office ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Tourism and events center

The last presentations of the day came from Tourism Director Jessica Hurov who spoke to the class during the bus ride on the way to the Alachua County Sports and Events Center at Celebration Pointe.

Hurov spoke about the various partnerships her office has with local organizations to help promote tourism in Alachua County. Those partnerships help boost economic development, she said.

Hurov explained how visitors pay a bed tax when they stay overnight at hotels and also pay the one-penny WSPP surtax when shopping or eating at restaurants. Those funds are then reinvested into projects around Alachua County to support even more visitors.
Sports Event Center
One of the projects funded by the bed tax is the sparkling, $30 million Sports and Events Center that opened in 2023.

Watch the Sports and Events Center grand opening ceremony.

The center features the only indoor banked track in the state of Florida, more than a dozen basketball hoops, a batting cage, a gymnastics area, pickleball courts and much more.

Soon, the world will be traveling to Alachua County as it hosts the first World Master’s Athletics (WMA) indoor championship to be convened in the United States in March 2025. This week-long event will bring thousands of competitors and spectators from around the globe.

Learn more about the impact of tourism in Alachua County.
Watch Alachua County Talks – Tourism.

What’s next for academy graduates

While many were excited to finish the class, some were left wondering what to do with the information they learned. Some said they plan to run for office in the coming years, while others were considering volunteer opportunities in the community or applying for advisory board vacancies.

“We got to meet a lot of really great people who are obviously dedicated to their work. It’s just been amazing,” said George Dondanville, who recently moved to Gainesville and took the class with his wife.

Dondanville said he was surprised to learn the class sessions were free and so citizen-centric. He said he wished he was able to go back in time and take the class as a younger individual to potentially run for office. Instead, he added, he plans to soon seek an advisory board vacancy to be more involved locally.

Likewise, participant Linda Floyd said she has already registered to become a volunteer poll worker during the next election.

“I have learned so much,” she said. “It’s been a wealth of information. I’ve met so many great people and I’ve gotten involved.

Floyd, who admitted that she complains about her property tax bill, found the breakdown explanation of the bill and where the money goes the most useful and informative. During the course, she learned that she qualified for an additional homestead exemption she didn’t know about. Her advice for anyone thinking about signing up for the course? “Don’t consider, just do it.”

“There’s just so many opportunities that people don’t realize about living in this county,” she said. “It’s been such a great experience.”

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