The year ahead: New leader for UF, growth resumes


FILE PHOTO - The University of Florida Computer Information Sciences and Engineering building on the UF campus.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Monday, December 31, 2012 at 6:56 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, December 31, 2012 at 6:56 p.m.

What's in store for Alachua County and North Central Florida in 2013?

To name a few stories, the University of Florida will get a new president. Across the street from campus on the corner of University and 13th Street, the much-anticipated University Corners appears to be back in the planning stages, with developers predicting work to begin in the summer. East of campus, Innovation Square will continue to take shape with the Infusion Technology Center, an eight-story building to house office and lab space for technology companies. North Florida Regional Medical Center will unveil in the summer its four-story, $62 million addition that will include a new neonatal intensive care unit.

Here's a closer look at what might come to pass in the coming year:

University of Florida

A NEW PRESIDENT: One of the University of Florida's first orders of business in 2013 will be choosing a new president. Current President Bernie Machen is retiring by the end of the year. A three-day whirlwind process in which interviews will be conducted and a new president chosen is currently scheduled for Jan. 10-12.

TUITION A HOT-BUTTON TOPIC: Tuition likely will be a major issue in Tallahassee during the upcoming legislative session. Gov. Rick Scott's higher education task force has recommended freezing tuition for degrees that are highly sought by employers, while Scott has spoken against all tuition increases. State university presidents pledged that they wouldn't seek tuition increases if they receive an equivalent $118 million in performance-based funding.

UF EXPANDS ONLINE: Online courses are another issue likely to be on the legislative agenda. The Board of Governors is expected to consider options to expand online offerings, which could come through existing universities or a new, online-only university.

Lawmakers last year fast-tracked the state's 12th university, Florida Polytechnic, and higher education officials will be watching to see if they do the same with a 13th university.

In the city

For Gainesville city government, 2013 will bring an election cycle with the mayor's office on the ballot, the scheduled beginning of operations for the biomass plant and progress on several city construction projects.

BIOMASS PLANT: The hotly debated 100-megawatt biomass plant is scheduled to go online in the second half of 2013. The city has a 30-year contract to purchase all of the electricity generated. Gainesville Regional Utilities officials are pursuing a series of moves to try to limit the monthly rate impact to $10.56 per 1,000 kilowatt-hours.

ELECTIONS: In March's city elections, the offices of mayor and District 4 city commissioner are on the ballot. Already, six candidates, including incumbent Craig Lowe, have signed up to vie for the mayor's seat. At this point, no candidates, including incumbent Randy Wells, have signed up for the District 4 race.

The city ballot also will include a voter referendum on a proposal to change the schedule for future city elections from the spring of every year to the fall of odd years. To match the new election schedule, terms would be extended from three to four years.

CONSTRUCTION AHEAD: A slew of construction projects will continue or commence. The ongoing development of Depot Park continues. GRU's sheetflow restoration project, which includes the construction of artificial wetlands north of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park to clean up the water flowing into Alachua Sink, will pick up steam. Also on the horizon are the construction of a new Regional Transit System maintenance facility and operations center and a new police headquarters.

Water shortages

The Suwannee and St. Johns river water management districts will carry into 2013 their North Florida Aquifer Replenishment Initiative to study ways to replenish the aquifer.

Possibilities include restoring and maintaining groundwater levels by using reclaimed water or surface water from rivers.

The aquifer is the source of water for municipal use such as drinking and bathing and for agriculture.

The ongoing initiative is part of the joint effort on future water resource planning that the districts officially launched in late 2011 under the supervision of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The study area covers the northeastern area of the Suwannee district and the northern area of the St. Johns district and includes all or part of Alachua, Union, Bradford, Hamilton, Columbia, Putnam, Duval, Clay and Nassau counties.

Much of the area lies in a water resource caution area, meaning supplies are not projected to meet future needs.

The districts' joint planning effort comes in the midst of long-standing concerns that groundwater pumping within the St. Johns district, particularly in metropolitan northeastern Florida, is causing lower lake and aquifer levels and the reduced flow of rivers and springs in the Suwannee district.

Studies to gather more data on the causes of depleted aquifer levels and springs flow are ongoing at the same time districts are investigating ways to replenish the aquifer.

Business

WALMART CLOSES ONE STORE, OPENS ANOTHER: Walmart is closing its store at 2649 NW 13th St. after nearly 30 years and opening a larger Supercenter with a full line of groceries on Feb. 1 at 5700 NW 23rd St., off Northwest 34th Street near U.S. 441.

The move is expected to lure other retailers to the area of the new store while complicating efforts to draw businesses to the old location already surrounded by large vacancies.

HOUSING MARKET LOOKING UP?: Home prices could stabilize and start to go up, with sales on the rise and median sales prices down 3 percent for the first 11 months of 2012 after years of double-digit decreases.

INFUSION TECH CENTER ON THE HORIZON: Following the opening of the Innovation Hub and Mindtree Limited moving into the Ayers building, Innovation Square continues to take shape with construction starting in May on the Infusion Technology Center, an eight-story building to house office and lab space for technology companies over ground-floor retail and restaurant space.

UNIVERSITY CORNERS ON THE HORIZON?: Redevelopment is planned near campus with a new developer taking over the long-stalled University Corners project at Northwest 13th Street and University Avenue and hoping to start construction in the summer, while the restaurant and retail center called U14 is expected to open in the summer in the former Presbyterian Student Center.

Medicine

NORTH FLORIDA REGIONAL'S NEW WING: North Florida Regional Medical Center will unveil its new wing next summer. The four-story, $62 million addition will include a new neonatal intensive care unit, a neuroscience wing and an expansion of cardiovascular services, and add 92 patient beds. Construction began in 2009.

FREE-STANDING EMERGENCY DEPARTMENT: Shands at the University of Florida will open the city's first free-standing emergency department next summer on Northwest 39th Avenue. The $10 million facility will include 10 exam spaces and be staffed by a team of newly hired physicians and nurses.

SHANDS CENTER AT SPRINGHILL: The multi-specialty facility opens in January and will include cardiology, dermatology, psychiatry, reproductive medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, pain medicine, radiology, other medical and surgical specialties, along with laboratory and imaging services. It will be located at 8616 NW 39th Ave., across the street from the Shands Rehab Hospital and Shands Vista Psychiatric Hospital.

Santa Fe College

As Santa Fe College keeps growing and the cost of higher education remains a hot topic, the college likely will capture many headlines this year.

AFFORDABLE DEGREE: SF College accepted the challenge to create a degree that would cost students $10,000. Officials will wait to see if state lawmakers approve the creation of a bachelor degree in public safety management during the legislative session. If approved, the program will launch in the fall.

ENROLLMENT: For the past few years, a debate has arisen about whether it is better to attend a community college versus a university, particularly when specific training for certain fields are offered for less at the colleges. SF College has continued to add programs with the purpose of meeting needs of the local job market. Look for the college to keep pushing this theme and don't be surprised if enrollment increases as a result.

Public schools

The Alachua County Public Schools likely will make the news often in 2013 as budgets, testing and other statewide issues will affect local parents, students and teachers.

BUDGET: With funding decreasing year after year, the Alachua County School Board will keep a close eye on how education funds are appropriated during Florida's legislative session.

TESTING: Local officials have taken a strong stance against what they call "high-stakes testing" mandated by the state. The FCAT is not going away, and shifting standards probably will continue to generate controversy.

A NEW BOSS: Florida has a new education commissioner. All eyes are on Tony Bennett, Indiana's outgoing schools chief, as he takes over a state transitioning to the Common Core Standards, which is a set of national benchmarks for reading and math.

SECURITY: In the wake of the school shootings in Connecticut, the topic of school safety already has been broached by local school and law enforcement officials. The conversation about how to make schools safer likely will continue.

In the county

As 2013 begins, the Alachua County Commission faces a few challenges likely to command much of its attention in the coming year.

A NEW COUNTY MANAGER: In early 2013, the commission will focus on the search for a new county manager to take over for interim County Manager Richard Drummond. The board selected the executive search firm Bob Murray and Associates as its top choice to locate candidates for the position in December.

ROADS IN DISREPAIR: Road repair will continue to be a key problem for Alachua County, which has an approximately $550 million countywide roads backlog. In November 2012, voters rejected a referendum that would have levied a 15-year, three-fourths-cent sales surtax to fund a significant chunk of repairs. The County Commission plans to host a summit early in the new year about a new transportation sales tax initiative for 2014.

BALANCING THE BUDGET: Local governments have struggled in the tough economy of recent years to balance budgets with lighter coffers. Alachua County is no different, and developing a budget for the current fiscal year was the subject of considerable debate among commissioners. Commissioner Mike Byerly said the commission likely would have to either make deep spending cuts or raise property tax rates in the upcoming budget cycle to pay for annually recurring expenses that were covered for fiscal year 2012-13 with one-time money that no longer will be available.

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