Who are we anyway?

What do you think when you think about Alachua County? Aren’t we that special place “Where Nature and Culture Meet”? Aren’t we springs and prairie and forests and rolling green hills surrounding a dynamic university city?

And if we set out to build an event center, a sports palace to attract visitors, wouldn’t we want to place it where, you know, “Nature and Culture” actually meet?

Wouldn’t we want to show off the best we have to offer?

Our dynamic downtown arts scene.

Our newest and best park and the museum that celebrates what makes us innovators and inventors.

Our town-gown culture that breeds more innovation still.

Who are we anyway? What are we? We’re Gator Country set amid real gators and buffalo and so much more.

This isn’t us, is it? This is just more of the same autoAmerican landscape that you can see anywhere in Anywhere USA.

We’re really going to put our events center here? We’re going to welcome our visitors to a place where Commerce and Asphalt Meet? Is that really us?

Granted there are certain expediencies to inviting the world to our own little slice of autoAmerica.

I-75 is the perfect asphalt delivery system. It will allow our visitors to drive directly to their chain-owned hotel, attend their chosen event, eat at any number of chain-owned restaurants, shop in the big box of their choice…and then gas up and get the hell out of town. It is the autoAmerican way.

Will they even suspect that there is this amazing Innovation City just beyond sight of that asphalt delivery and departure system? Will they care? Do we even want visitors to come and see who and what we really are?

Or are we only interested in filling Interstate-adjacent beds, supporting minimum wage restaurant jobs and funneling shoppers into big boxes before we send them back to wherever they came from?

Who are we? What are we about? Are we just another way stop on the autoAmerican autobahn? Is that really the best vision Alachua County Commissioners have for our community’s future?

If so, we need commissioners with better vision. Because asphalt and commerce is a poor substitute for that magical place where Nature And Culture Meet.

Food trucks today

You know what Gainesville really needs on its march to become Innovation City?

More food trucks.

Ok, that’s a simplification. But it is one of the “baby steps” that Jim O’Connell says the city should take as Gainesville continues to nourish and grow it’s own start-up tech culture.

O’Connell is director of UF Innovate. His job being to “push patents out the door,” to channel the fruits of faculty research into new companies and new jobs.

And to keep as many of them as possible here in Gainesville.

“I have roughly 400 people working in the Innovation Hub who have to go someplace else to eat lunch,” he says. “We need a food truck park, and right now there are no guidelines on how to create that.”

Actually there soon may be. A food truck draft plan has been circulating in City Hall and will soon go before the Plan Board for review.

But baby steps aside, the larger point O’Connell made at a breakfast presentation last week was one of setting realistic goals and expectations for Gainesville’s high-tech future.

Gainesville is never going to be Silicon Valley. Building the financial resources and tech infrastructure that has developed around institutions like Stanford and MIT was the work of decades and will not likely be replicated in a city that is primarily known for “football and The Swamp…we don’t have the brand to compete on that level.

“Nobody is going to move to Gainesville and put 5,000 jobs here,” he said. “Organically, home-grown companies are the ones that will stay put.”

And while UF faculty “are great for generating ideas and patents,” it is usually younger grad students who go forward and create start-up companies.

“We need to attract them and keep them here, and they want to live in the downtown area,” he said. “We need high-end condos where somebody making 80 grand a year can walk to the bars, restaurants, micro-breweries and all the stuff people that age have come to expect.”

And as new companies take root, they will also need laboratory and office space that doesn’t currently exist. “We need more. We don’t have it. And we will lose companies if we don’t have a way to provide it.”

And that’s the dilemma. Of late Gainesville has experienced a construction boom that seems to be mainly focused on high-end student housing. It’s been happening all up and down University Avenue and 13th Street.

But at some point there is bound to be a glut in that sector. And then what comes next?

Just how, or even if, the city can encourage close-in residential and commercial development of the kind O’Connell says is needed to support the start-up economy is a complicated question. Even more so is whether developers and financial institutions will be willing to take the risks involved in creating something other than student housing.

“We are entrepreneurial ecosystem developers,” O’Connell said of UF Innovate. “We need to work on the money, the management team, the infrastructure…we need to create the entire continuum.”

But, he said, “my team cannot do all this on their own. We desperately need people on the outside, people with business acumen…We need a public-private partnership.” And currently there appears to be “no strategy, no plan,” to foster Gainesville’s entrepreneurial infrastructure.

Hence baby steps. This notion of town-gown collaboration on “simple, quick solutions so we can start marching forward.”

So food trucks today, high-end apartments tomorrow?

(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.”

Winter’s still coming

Yes, we were all disappointed in the series finale of Game Of Thrones. Is that all there is?

No, actually, a sequel is in the works.

And it will be ugly. Republics will fall. The center will not hold. The new order will march in lock step. Tweets will go nuclear.

On the plus side the flag may still wave. We may still retain the illusion that life as we know goes on. We will continue to consume and twitter.

But all that will be an illusion. Winter really is coming. And the only thing that can hold it back is our collective will. And only if we care about our children and their children and our species and life as we know it.

The Republic is rotting before our very eyes. From the inside out.

We have just one year to stop the rot.

And if we don’t then we deserve what’s coming.

The winter of our discontent is near. Do we care?

Do we?

Walking on rainbows

Now we’re walking on rainbows in downtown Gainesville. How cool is that?

Listen, Gainesville is no stranger to public art. We’ve got the French Fries From Hell and that evil Jay Leno lookalike moon with the glowing eyes.

And we’re busting out all over in wall murals. Tom Petty, dragons and apes, Me Too and true romance…our walls have a thousand stories to tell.

But, really, why stop there when we’ve got perfectly good public streets for canvas?

Gainesville launched its Art In The Crosswalks initiative last month with three rainbow crosswalks on 1st Street – next to city hall, at Bo Diddley Plaza and in front of the Hipp. The rainbows celebrate National Coming Out day. And what a colorful way to display our collective pride in being a welcoming city.

And those rainbows will do double duty. For art’s sake, and for safety’s sake.

Anything we can do to get cars to slow down and pay attention is to the public good. And the rainbows are certainly attention-getters.

We’re not alone in that regard. All over the country, and around the world, cities are laying down imaginative street designs to celebrate their creativity – and to get cars to slow down. Crosswalks are being dressed up as zippers, keyboards, kaleidoscopes, optical illusions and, yes, rainbows.

“Bright colors and unique designs in crosswalks can create a sense of community while keeping pedestrians safer and drawing drivers’ attention to them” argues the online news service Smart Cities Drive. “Brightly colored crosswalks are popping up in a variety of designs from geometric patterns to symbols that represent a city’s history and culture…”

Hey, who doesn’t love creative crosswalks?

Well, the Federal Highway Administration for one. Seems the traffic “professionals” have been trying to get cities to desist from being artsy at street level. FHA prefers the standard, white, by-the-book crosswalks that have been so successful in protecting pedestrians.

Of which 6,227 were killed last year alone. And that number keeps rising.

According to the feds “crosswalk art is actually contrary to the goal of increased safety and most likely could be a contributing factor to a false sense of security for both motorists and pedestrians” reports the New York Times.

To which objections some cities are responding with a polite but firm “bunk.”

“With the system of federalism in the United States, the federal government does not have jurisdiction over everything,” states a written response Ames City, Iowa, which has decided to keep its rainbows despite a “sharply worded” federal request to remove them.

My personal favorite rebuke comes from Doug Turnbull, aka the “Gridlock Guy” an Atlanta traffic watcher. “A pencil-pushing bureaucrat a thousand miles away shouldn’t affect policy of this kind on this level,” he wrote recently in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Rainbow crosswalks are a good thing…forbidding them for being unsafe is laughable — and probably makes people want to jaywalk even more.”

So here’s to walking on rainbows in Gainesville. And perhaps that’s only the beginning.

Assistant City Manager Dan Hoffman says to look for one or two additional creative crosswalk projects in the near term. And more later on if the city commission decides to keep funding Art In Crosswalks.

“One of the reasons we have to look at these kind of solutions is because the federal government has for years failed” to protect the walking public, Hoffman said.

So how about something really creative – and eye opening – at University and Main? Or University and 13th?

All the better to see us by.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.

Dirt cheap water

The thing about bumper stickers is that you can only put so much information on a narrow strip of adhesive plastic.

Say no to Nestle water grab. This from the conservation group Our Santa Fe River.

Nestle’s bid to take a million gallons of water a day from Ginnie Springs, on the Santa Fe River, and pour it into little plastic bottles is the literal definition of highway robbery. Aside from permit fees the company gets the water pretty much for free.

It’s almost like picking money up off the ground. Or in this case, siphoning it from deep below the aquifer.

If that water wasn’t diverted into plastic it would be nourishing the Santa Fe River.

“As water levels of the Floridan aquifer continue to drop, and the flow of the Santa Fe River continues to decline, Nestle’s false claims of sustainability fall flat.  The river is sick and in recovery,” notes OSFR on its web site.

And I’m with them so far as that goes. But here’s the thing.

We can say no to Nestle, although out politicians and regulators don’t like to say no to any corporation. But let’s say we do.

The fruit of our victory will amount to, well, a drop in the ocean.

Because Nestle is just a symptom of a much larger problem. And it is simply this.

We treat our water like dirt because our water is dirt cheap.

As the New York Times notes, most water use “regulations do nothing to address the main driver of the nation’s wanton consumption of water: its price.”

Why don’t farmers use drip irrigation? Because cheap water. Notes the Times article. “about half the 60 million acres of irrigated land in the United States use flood irrigation, just flooding the fields with water, which is about as wasteful a method as there is.” But it’s cheap.

But wait a minute. If we raise the cost of water, won’t the poor be deprived of this life giving fluid?

No, but our lawns might. It is an act of national insanity that nearly 60 percent America’s household water supply ends up being poured on the ground – back into the dirt – to keep our lawns green.

“The pricing is wrong,” reports Atlantic. “We Americans are spoiled, we wake up in the morning and we turn on the tap and out comes as much water as we want for less than we pay for cellphone service or for cable television. So we take water for granted.” This from Robert Glennon, a water expert at Arizona University and author of Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What To Do About It. “We all pay a ridiculous amount of money for the water.”

The thing is, Nestle’s get rich for nothing scheme only works if they are getting the water for, well, nothing.

If they had to pay the people of Florida, say, 30 cents for every $1 bottle of water they sell – if it were a source seller’s market – Nestle likely wouldn’t do it. Problem solved.

But if it did pay, it would create a source of revenue that could be used for water preservation and conservation.

But here’s the thing. Nestle is not an aberration. If Nestle goes away Florida will continue to vastly over-pump. To feed urban growth, to serve Big Ag’s needs. Our water is just too cheap to allow it to sit unused in an aquifer.

Do you want to stop farmers from doing this?

Right price water and they will do this.

This is the price we all pay for dirt cheap water in America.

And this.

By all means, let’s keep the bare liquid necessities affordible.

“Since drinking water is a human right, experts all agree that the base amount a person needs to survive, about 15 gallons a day, should be subsidized,” notes Atlantic.

But beyond that, let’s make our water too expensive, too precious, to treat like dirt.

“It’s the issue of how to price water for swimming pools, lawns, and agriculture that’s tricky and politically thorny,” Atlantic adds.

“From an economist’s standpoint, modern urban water shortages are almost always self-inflicted wounds” Richard Carson, economics professor University of California at San Diego.

We treat our water like dirt because our water is cheaper than dirt.

We really ought to start treating water it like it is coming out of the aquifer already bottled.