Debbie Martinez: Spirit of Gainesville nominee

Published: Tuesday, September 11, 2012 at 4:35 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, September 11, 2012 at 4:35 p.m.

As a registered nurse, businesswoman and conservationist, Debbie Martinez has devoted her life to public health, public safety and environmental protection.


Category: Community Service

About Debbie Martinez

Occupation: Retired nurse, businesswoman

Years in Gainesville: From childhood, beginning 46 years ago.

Spouse: Ernesto Martinez

In the late 1990s while co-owner of Ernesto's Tex-Mex Cafe, Debbie saw downtown Gainesville become a place where drug sales and associated crime overwhelmed police and resulted in emergency rooms becoming inundated with young people suffering from drug overdoses and sexual and physical assaults.

As a result of the city commission’s decision to opt out of the state bar closing statute, many Gainesville bar owners chose to keep their establishments open beyond 2 a.m. Unable to sell alcohol, some clubs became late night havens for drug dealers from around the state who developed a lucrative trade selling drugs to young people who remained in the bars and clubs that became alcohol-free music venues after 2 a.m

A registered nurse and employer of many young people, Debbie knew she could not remain silent. In the face of sometimes heated and threatening opposition from drug dealers and some local business owners willing to turn a blind eye to what was happening, Debbie launched a campaign to let the city commission and the public know what was happening. Despite opponents who insisted Gainesville’s after hours downtown nightlife was enjoying a “Renaissance” that attracted customers from distant cities providing an economic boost to some local businesses, Debbie kept her message simple and to the point:

“Exploiting our youth for profit is unconscionable.”

For over a year Debbie worked with members of the medical community, law enforcement and others to collect documented evidence to support the need to put Gainesville back in line with most other Florida cities and require that bars close their doors at 2 a.m. On December 20, 2000, Debbie’s campaign finally succeeded when the city commission reversed its prior decision and returned Gainesville to its previous 2 a.m. bar closing time.

After her work on the bar closing issue and her assistance to young people whose lives had been shattered by drugs, Debbie was offered and accepted a position at the Corner Drug Store to provide education on the prevention of alcohol and substance abuse.

In 2001, Debbie accepted service on the Safe Space Homeless Task Force, the first group to comprehensively study the city’s homeless problem. She researched homeless shelters throughout the country and traveled to homeless shelters across Florida to learn what works and does not work when designing a shelter. Debbie's recommendations were a vital part of the committee’s final report.

When the city commission was in the process of weakening wetland protection regulations at the behest of local developers, Debbie worked tirelessly to inform the commission and public of the damage this would do to Gainesville's creeks, wetlands and quality of life.

After seven years away, Debbie returned to Gainesville with her husband Ernesto to find that the city commission had entered into an unneeded and fiscally irresponsible 30 year contract committing the city’s utility to purchase electricity from a wood burning power generator that would pollute the air and increase the electric rates.

In the last year, Debbie has been a tireless voice for open government and fiscal accountability; becoming the most consistent and clear voice at city commission and county commission meetings where she has worked to help her city avoid what she believes to be an imminent fiscal and quality of life disaster due to the city's bad biomass contract.

As was the case with a previous city commission’s ill-advised decision to opt out of the state bar closing statute, Debbie came to believe another city commission had made a decision that would harm citizens of her city, particularly the poor and most vulnerable, while enriching a small group of people with no interest in Gainesville or the quality of life of it's citizens.

In addition to the economic harms Debbie researched which resonated with her as a business woman, she researched evidence compiled by the American Heart Association, Lung Association, and other medical groups documenting that emissions coming from biomass generating facilities can and do produce severe health problems, particularly for the young, the elderly and the infirm. These discoveries resonated with her as a registered nurse. Her course was set.

For the last year Debbie has felt compelled to work on her own and hand in hand with other concerned citizens to expose the reality of the irresponsible 30 year biomass contract that could impose unacceptable public health risks, threaten the economic life of her home town, degrade the environment and her community’s quality of life.

In this latest endeavor, Debbie has been tireless. She has attended dozens upon dozens of county commission meetings, city commission meetings, organizational meetings and community gatherings, attempting to share information and encourage – gently or not so gently – those with influence and decision-making authority to take decisive action to change course and protect Gainesville, the community in which she grew to adulthood, and which she calls home. Debbie has been an inspiration to those who know her and call her a friend.

Debbie Martinez's dedication, inexhaustible work and leadership truly embodies the spirit of community service.

Submitted by Karen Orr

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