Hutch then and now

The many faces of Hutch

Hutch runs an Airbnb for indigenous fish.

The water in the tank is a bit murky, it comes from his well and is supplemented with liberal doses from nearby streams and wetlands “for the microorganisms.” And it is thick with vegetation, also harvested locally.

And his guests?

He’s got some crawdads. And tiny glass shrimp. A hog choker, a Madtom and who knows what else in there.

“I dip them out of local water bodies and then take them home for a while,” says Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson, late of the Alachua County Commission and these days still hiding out from Covid in his house tucked away deep in Flamingo Hammock. “The fish stay for a month and then I take them back to where they came from. It’s the ethical way to keep fish.”

And, before you ask, yes, he’s also got lots of plastic flamingos – on shelves and window sills and everywhere – because nobody ever accused Hutch of having a dry sense of humor.

Virtual county commission meeting

If your last glimpse of Hutchinson was back in the day when the commission was still hosting face-to-face meetings, you probably wouldn’t recognize him now. Back then he was clean shaven, closed cropped and likely sporting a tie. Now he looks like nothing so much as some sort of cracker Santa – white bearded, mustached, hair near to touching his shoulders.

“I call it my Covid mullet,” he grins. “I’m not getting it cut until I get a vaccine.”

And, listen, don’t worry about Hutch running out of things to do with his 12-years of public office finally behind him. He’s adding another room to his house for a billiard parlor. “My intent is to hustle all my friends and have half dozen jars on wall for my favorite charities. Nobody plays for free.”

“On November 17th, when I leave office at noon, my new business card will read: ‘Pool hustler for charities; deep woods gravedigger; on-call raconteur.’”

Naturally, he will continue his role as “Senior Executive Gravedigger” at Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery. The “green” graveyard was his brain child after all, and somebody’s got to man the shovel. But he says he will resign from most of the numerous boards and committees that have taken up so much of his “free time” these many years.

One foot out the commission door

Because, among other things, that pontoon boat sitting in the shed out back is begging to be launched on Newnans Lake again.

“I grew up on the lake,” says the 68-year old Gainesville native. “I learned about critters and even more about ecosystems on Newnans.”

Meanwhile, his rock group of some 30 years, Weeds of Eden, continues to practice in the “Flamingo Band Cave,” in anticipating of at last being able to do live gigs again. “We practice in separate corners, stay masked, and use different entrances.”

Hutchinson first got himself elected to the commission in 1998, after which he and fellow first termer Dave Newport proceeded to drag Alachua County – practically kicking and screaming – into a new era of growth management and land use planning. “Over the decades, the county commission had been laissez faire about growth, do whatever you want to do, while the city’s reputation was ‘shut it all down.’

“The grand bargain we made was that it was going to be easier to build in the city but the county had to put in some sort of rational scheme for developing in the suburbs.”

Hutch changes his identity and then turns over the job to Anna Prizzia

Randy Reid, former county manager recalls “I think he joined the commission at unique time when growth was a paramount issue. Hutch to me has a huge legacy. He took seriously the comprehensive planning process, and he was pretty pragmatic about getting things implemented right.”

And all of that might have worked out pretty well – if the county hadn’t already approved thousands of exurban lots for development, if the Legislature hadn’t ended up gutting the state’s growth management laws and…well, if Hutch and Newport hadn’t been unceremoniously dumped four years later in favor of more pro-growth candidates.

Which is not to say that growth management was a total wash for his involvement. “A big part of the plan was establishing a urban defining greenbelt…an emerald necklace” around Gainesville, he recalls. “I tried to get the county to establish a small fund for land conservation, maybe half a million or so, and got nowhere.

“So I decided that the only way we were going to accomplish anything was with a public initiative.”

It is not for nothing that Pegeen Hanrahan, former Gainesville mayor and a director of the Trust For Public Land, calls Hutchinson the father of land conservation in Alachua County.

Having previously founded and directed Alachua Conservation Trust – which has since brought tens of thousands of acres into protected status – Hutchinson proceeded to launch Alachua County Forever. Approved by voters in 2000, that general bond obligation would ultimately generate more than $43 million and bring more than 20,000 acres of land worth more than $84 million into public ownership.

“He is certainly the person in Alachua County most responsible for protecting natural land,” said Hanrahan, who would later team up with Hutch and other conservationists to win voter approval, and then reauthorization, for the Wild Places and Public Spaces sales tax initiative.

“He’s just a person who doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘no’,” she says. “He’s extremely energetic he sets his mind to getting something done, and he certainly throws his whole energy behind it.”

Hutchinson would not return to the commission for a decade. Elected again in 2012, he would continue his environmental and conservation activism, but two other issues would engage his attention as well.

“When I came back we were killing more than 4,000 animals a year, 25 animals a day, just for population control,” he recalls. “We had to ask a county employee to figure out how to dispose of all those bodies – incineration, rendering whatever – it was incredibly depressing.”

At the time, Maddie’s Fund, an organization dedicated to establishing “no kill” shelters, was putting up millions of dollars for pilot programs around the nation. “They picked half a dozen counties to experiment with and we were one of them. They gave us 10 years of funding and we are essentially the first no-kill community in the southeast.”

Maddie’s Fund required a previously unheard of degree of cooperation between the county, animal welfare groups, veterinarians and other stakeholders. “Getting a low cost spay and neuter facility was key and that was tough because at first a lot of veterinarians resisted,” he said. “We created a huge foster pet care network, and Operation Catnip,” which traps, neuters and returns feral cats to the wild.

Who is that masked man?

“You have to be incredibly cleaver to catch them,” he said. “And we have almost 100 people working this assembly line to neuter up to 200 cats a day.”

But Hutch’s greatest legacy in his final years on the commission was arguably the work he has done to improve metal health services in the county and the criminal justice system.

He says Alachua County became the first local government in the nation to provide “mental health first aid” to all its employees. “It’s an eight-hour course that teaches what to say and do when you are with a person experiencing a mental health crisis – it keeps both them and you safe. The curriculum was originally developed in Australia, where it was widely taught. Locally, we were early adopters.

“It also saves lives by reducing stigma and by featuring local mental health resources, both of which increase the likelihood that a person will seek help.”

He also co-founded Gainesville Peer Respite, a mental health support group run entirely by people who have themselves experienced mental illness. The peers “provide support for those in mental health crisis, including a comfortable house where up to five guests can stay for up to a week.” And he has worked with the courts and law enforcement to divert more offenders with substance abuse or mental health problems away from incarceration and into treatment programs.

“He was the first commissioner to really give voice to the mental health in our community,” says Maggie Labarta, former director of Meridian Behavioral Healthcare. “The system is pretty fragmented in this community and Hutch was very interested in mapping it out so he could see how it all worked. He understood how difficult it was for someone in distress to navigate the system.”

Speaking of living under distress, Hutchinson spent the last several months of his term as commission chair, and found himself dealing on a daily basis with the just emerging Covid crisis.

“I was very happy to be the chair during this period,” he says, “I knew i was a lame duck and that helped me make tough decisions. The first emergency orders were made by me and the county manager. We looked at what other communities were trying and we grabbed the best ideas. We were doing research day and night and some of the emergency orders were being rewritten on an almost daily basis.

“We were getting little or no help from the feds or state government,” he added.

Looking back on his 12-years in office and some of the issues he championed, Hutchinson muses: “I was much more of a socialist than the system allows me to be. I didn’t pull any punches, I was willing to say what’s on my mind. So I guess I have at least that in common with Trump.

Weeds of Eden still abide

“But I’m 68 and this is a young person’s job. To do it right takes 60 or 80 hours a week. At one point I was on 12 different boards and committees. Commissioners are paid well and I think we need to work full-time on the job.”

But that was then, and this is now. Now billiards, boating, burials and the band await his full attention.

4 Comments

  1. Always a pleasure to assist in a dig with Hutch! I would learn so much about what was going on in this area.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s