A sometime journalist who used to string words together for a living before I retired to run a non-profit cycle touring organization that will henceforth go unnamed, as I have subsequently retired from that career as well. I write a bi-monthly column, theater reviews and an occasional magazine piece for my old newspaper. If I still had a business card it would read: Ron Cunningham: Trained Observer Of The Human Condition. Because like The Donald, you know, ego.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.
I will remember 2020 as the year I rekindled my love affair with Gainesville. And oddly, because of Covid.
No question, the pandemic knocked us all off our game. Often in jarring fashion. Sometimes leading us down paths of tedium, boredom and even borderline depression.
It was clear as early as March that this wasn’t going to be a “normal” year. It would be a year of lockdowns, closures, social distancing, face masks, resentments and rebellions…all conspiring to isolate us one against another.
Daniel Herriges, an editor with Strong Towns, recently wrote: “One of the best ways to deeply understand the place you live is..to slow down. Way down. Take a walk around your city, without a concrete plan or destination.”
Way ahead of you, Dan. That was my Covid year in a nutshell.
Only I cycled rather than walked Gainesville. Day after day after day. Hundreds of miles all told. Snapping photos as I went. All the time minding my social distancing Ps and Qs.
And noticing things I hadn’t really paid attention to before.
This from a guy who has been writing about Gainesville for nearly half a century.
Like the growing seediness of our downtown. And the boarded-up abandonment of the Boulware Springs waterworks…literally where Gainesville was born. And the empty storefronts and weedy lots on University Avenue.
But my observations weren’t all negative. Over the course of the year I made a concerted effort to track down as many murals as I could. Taking hundreds of photos and posting them on my blog. I followed Gainesville’s meandering creeks, weaved up and down the streets of charming neighborhoods (by the way, this was a great year for yard signs: “Here right matters.”)
And I noticed that, Covid notwithstanding, home grown entrepreneurs were still gamely trying to make it in GNV: The 4th Avenue Food Park. The mom-and-pops springing up on a Main Street we redesigned to be more people friendly. The vitality of Grove Street. The renewal of Pleasant Street, one house at a time.
One day I followed the path of the much-ditched, diverted and buried Sweetwater Branch Creek. That sobering experience led to a series of Sun columns and blogs about how we might simultaneously reclaim Sweetwater, revitalize a long-ignored downtown park and create a urban greenway that would connect cultural treasures like the Harn, the Cotton Club, the Matheson and the Thomas Center. And now we’ve got some civic-minded folks working to make that concept a reality.
And in the process of all that aimless wandering and wondering, I fell back in love with this town. And I’ve been giving a lot more thought to who we are, what we are, where we’ve been and where we are going.
Listen, if we can’t learn from our Covid year and figure out how to make Gainesville a more resilient city, then shame on us. We are creative people and these times demand creativity.
It’s still going to be a while before we get back to “normal.” In the meantime we really need to go into 2021 thinking about how we can make Gainesville a post-Covid success story.
I love this town. I have since I first got here in 1974. And I am here to tell you that no matter where we’ve been or what we’ve done…you ain’t seen nothing yet.
Happy New Year Gainesville. You won’t believe what’s coming in 2021.
Listen, I’ve been having a lot of fun with FREE GNV on Facebook for the last few weeks. But we’re got a whole new year ahead of us. We’re literally entering into uncharted territory.
And so it’s time to get serious.
When I launched FREE GNV – my mock initiative to make Gainesville an Independent City – I admitted up front that mine was a Quixotic endeavor.
Mostly I was making fun of the Springs County people…the rural and small town Trumpsters who have given up trying to own Gainesville’s libtards and now want their very own county to sulk in.
My point was that we have at least as good a chance of making Gainesville an Independent City – in the legal sense – as they do of making Springs County a reality.
Which is to say no chance at all. The barriers are too high, the politics too polarized.
So why bother with FREE GNV?
Because if we choose to employ them, we have the resources, the intellectual reservoir and the deep pool of talent and creativity necessary to make Gainesville an Independent City in function if not in law.
And what is independence but the ability to exist, prosper and thrive with as little outside influence as possible? We can do that.
How can we make Gainesville an Independent City in function if not in fact?
It’s an excellent question. One of many we need to be asking ourselves in 2021 as we go about the necessary business of reinventing a post-Covid Gainesville.
So starting today FREE GNV becomes an open forum for ideas. An ongoing discussion about how we, all of us together, can make Gainesville more resilient, equitable, greener, self-sufficient, economically vital and…well, liveable.
Let’s talk, GNV.
Listen, making fun of Springs County has been a lark, but we don’t need the blessing of Keith, Chuck or any other suburban politician to make Gainesville an Independent City.
We can do it ourselves. And in the process we can make GNV a better city in which to live, work, play and face the future.
I’m here to tell you that 2021 is going to be a trip. Enjoy the journey
Alachua County’s original seat of government, Newnansville, having been passed over by not one but two railroad lines, was deemed too remote. So in 1854 we had a picnic at Boulware Springs and voted to make Gainesville the center of county government. This because abundant water was literally spewing out of the ground.
This of course, inevitably set the stage for Gainesville’s growth.
The first waterworks consisted of a simple split-level structure powered by a wood-fired steam boiler.
Producing 194,000 gallons a day it was Gainesville’s main source of water for half a century. Indeed, the promise of “free” Boulware Springs water lured the University of Florida to town.
Although it sits at the trailhead of the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail, the old waterworks is now closed up, windows shuttered, and awaiting restoration.
If not for a few artistic touches here and there, the old building would be a sad sight indeed.
But hope, like water, springs eternal. Flaws notwithstanding, it is still a beautiful structure.
This is, after all, where it all began for Gainesville. A piece of history, certainly worth preserving and celebrating.
Because water is destiny.
The building dates to 1905, and age notwithstanding, its reinforced brick walls – the “bones” – are still good.
“The variegated yellow-to-pink color and relative softness of the brick indicates that it was fired of local clay, possibly at the long-defunct Campville Brickworks in east Alachua County.” From the National Register of Historic Places nomination form.
After the first of the year, city commissioners will be asked to add Boulware Springs restoration to the list of park improvement projects. And who can turn it down? It’s where we came from, after all.
No matter how often you’ve walked Depot Park, it never grows old. This is especially true during the holiday season when the very trees themselves are wrapped up like glowing presents and the woods take on a magical cast.
Seriously, if you haven’t strolled Depot after dark during this time of the year you are missing something special.
Both sides now.
Lights over water. And a noir look around the coffee truck.
A lone reader in the pavilion.
Lines, shadows…and arcs.
Don’t know why. But I had this eerie feeling I was being watched.
Wheels within wheels within wheels.
I believe this is where Bogie met Bacall.
Starry, starry night.
In case you’re wondering, everybody’s inside watching football.
What’s that old Gainesville slogan? Oh, yeah: Every path begins with passion.
Turns out that a cultural audit really is a thing. Who knew?
I hadn’t heard the term until the Gainesville City Commission met a couple of weeks ago to decide what, if anything, to do about their manager, Lee Feldman.
On the job only a year, Feldman has drawn complains from inside City Hall. And an outside investigation report recommended he be fired for (maybe/maybe not) retaliating against an employee who accused him of discrimination.
After a testy discussion, the commission voted 4-3 in support of Feldman. “We can’t fire our way out of a cultural problem,” Commissioner Harvey Ward said, noting that Gainesville’s last two city managers have found themselves at odds with entrenched senior staffers.
So rather than shop around for yet another manager, they opted to do a cultural audit of city government.
The suggestion was brought to commissioners by City Auditor Virginia Bigbie, a city charter officer who is herself relatively new to City Hall, having been hired only last December.
“It was a new concept to me,” says Mayor Lauren Poe. “After learning more about it I saw a lot of opportunities. It looks at how the organization functions, from how policies are developed, to internal management and communications procedures.
“I guess the best way to describe it is to look at how the gears of the organization fit together and identify the weaknesses. We have all these internal policies developed over several years by different managers and charter officers. They don’t necessarily make sense any more, and are not conducive to getting the work done.”
Wanting to become an instant expert, I of course turned to Google.
“A cultural audit will help you to assess where your organization is at and whether workplace culture is supporting your overall business goals. It will help you to assess the effectiveness of your working environment, employee engagement and internal communications.”
As far as I can gather, the process involves employee surveys, focus groups and a parsing over of decision making procedures, city policies and management practices to try to determine what’s what and who’s who…or who isn’t.
Bigbie gave commissioners case studies of cultural audits of San Francisco’s Transportation Agency – which had been plagued by high absentee rates – and Oregon’s somewhat dysfunctional Department of Revenue. The San Francisco audit found that employees felt undervalued and complained of poor internal communications and accountability.
And like Gainesville, Oregon’s DOR had a high turnover of top managers, creating confusing and conflicting directives that impacted on employee moral and departmental efficiency.
“What we are trying to achieve here is to identity a common purpose,” Commissioner Ward said. “I want to believe that after changing managers four times in five years people have a hard time knowing what direction we are going.
“At its root it’s a question of getting reoriented to a common purpose,” he continued. “For all of us to remember what we’re doing here.”
There’s no question that something needs to start meshing in city government. Like his predecessor, Anthony Lyons, Feldman’s tenure here has been marked by internal turmoil. And for their part some commissioners have grown frustrated about making policy decisions and then having to wait months, or longer, for staff compliance.
So, yes, let’s do a cultural audit and see if we can figure out why people aren’t playing well together in City Hall.
And, listen, if that doesn’t work, we can always run out and hire another city manager.