Emma Neagu and Vickie Mugica produced this update.
Hourly News Update
Emma Neagu and Vickie Mugica produced this update.
It started with a drill and a can of beer.
Now a pair of Gainesville entrepreneurs are among a group of 100 in a national contest sponsored by Fedex for small business grants.
Trevor Abbott and Ty Parker created Spin Chill, a pocket-sized, waterproof device that rapidly cools a canned or bottled drink in less than a minute by spinning it in ice.
Spin Chill, which operates out of Parker’s garage, is the only North-Central Florida business in the contest. The duo have sold more than 3,000 devices since launching the company in May 2013.
Contest winners receive $25,000; more 5,000 businesses applied for the grant. People vote for the top-100 businesses by liking them on Facebook. There were over 1.4 million votes cast in this year’s contest, according to FedEx’s website.
“It’s awesome to be in the Top 100,” Abbott said. “More than anything, it’s the support of people in Gainesville who were willing to vote for us.”
Abbott said he and Parker would use the contest money to improve their marketing strategies, including a better retail packaging, if they won.
Ten grant winners will be announced on March 24, according to FedEx’s website.
Daniel Sarkis, vice president and co-founder of Sarkis Investments, mentored Abbott and Parker during the creation of Spin Chill.
Sarkis met the pair in 2013 at the HackerHouse, a local organization that gives entrepreneurs resources and tools to develop their products, he said.
“People are interested because they’ve blended technology with elements of a party scene,” Daniel Sarkis said.
He said he thinks Spin Chill has been successful because Abbott and Parker have reached an untapped market.
“They have a great entrepreneurial vision, and they make a really great team together,” Sarkis said.
Sarkis believes the FedEx contest benefits small-business owners because the grant enables companies to develop their brands and gain notoriety.
“It’s been phenomenal to watch the business grow and be around their energy and innovativeness,” he said.
Nicole Snow, founder of Darn Good Yarn, a company dedicated to producing recycled-silk yarn products, won the grant contest in 2013.
Snow said the money enabled her to expand. Before the grant, she was able to provide 250 colors of yarn, and now she has 1,700.
“It’s conscientious capitalism at its finest,” Snow said.
Darn Good Yarn, which is based in Maine, helps women in Nepal and India become financially independent by employing them as yarn spinners. The company created jobs for more than 300 families, she said.
Snow said she had people reach out to her during the contest process who said her company inspired them to start their own business. She said she attributes this to the exposure companies receive through their Facebook pages during the contest voting process.
“People want to see you succeed,” Snow said. “People root for small businesses.”
Paying taxes is a staple in American society. Paying illegal taxes is a different story.
Ocala resident Dale Birch and small business Discount Sleep of Ocala filed a lawsuit against the city on Feb. 20 over emergency fire service user fees.
Derek Schroth, the plaintiff’s attorney, said the fees are illegal under Article 7 of the Florida Constitution because they are being charged in addition to taxes. General public services are already funded by taxes, making the fees unauthorized and therefore illegal, he said.
Ocala residents are not the only community that are pushing back on these types of fees. Schroth is also involved with a similar lawsuit representing residents of Wildwood.
About $49 million in fees appeared on residential and commercial utility bills from 2007 to 2011. Residents were charged $12 a month in 2007. The amount eventually grew to $15.20 a month. The monthly charge to business owners varied based on the square footage of their building.
City Attorney Patrick Gilligan said in a July 2006 city council memorandum that after consulting with Lewis, Longman &Waler, P.A., he believed the fee to be legally valid under Florida law.
To be a lawful user fee certain criteria must be met. One of those criteria is that the fee is voluntary.
According to the same memorandum, the fee is arguably voluntary because property owners could avoid the fee by not developing the property or by renting the property out.
Nothing is said about what people who already live in the area could do to avoid the fee.
Gilligan was unavailable for comment but Ocala City Manager Matthew Brower said the city had this fee examined by a legal team before charging it.
“This opinion, of course, has never been tested in the courts, and I guess that’s what ultimately will be tested here,” Brower said.
In 2011, Ocala filed a lawsuit for $572,265.70 against the Marion County School Board for refusing to pay the user fee, according to Exhibit J of the lawsuit
The school board is exempt from tax assessments but not from user fees.
Kevin Christian, spokesman for the Marion County School Board, said they’re not backing down.
“The school board is holding fast that it’s not responsible for these fees,” Christian said.
Schroth said the mixture of these two cases could be a real mess for Ocala.
“The same judge will be handling both of these cases, and it’s going to be interesting,” Schroth said.
A class-action lawsuit is defined as a small group of people acting on behalf of a larger group. Schroth said this qualifies as a class-action lawsuit because all Ocala utility customers were similarly affected.
The next step would be for a judge to approve the lawsuit, Schroth said. Though he isn’t sure when that will happen, it could be about six months from now.
“The obvious reason they’re a part of this is because they don’t want the city to continue to charge them an unlawful tax,” Schroth said.
Schroth said his clients had an additional incentive to file a claim because class representatives can be awarded more than someone who filed independently. The additional money serves as compensation for any inconveniences to the class representatives, such as depositions and court hearing attendance.
If the class is certified, all who paid this fee would be considered a class member unless they opt out.
According to the lawsuit, about 50,000 utility customers have been paying these fees. The lawsuit requests all amounts paid are refunded with interest less attorney’s fees.
Emily Miller produced this update.
“Wild About Monkeys” host Kevin Keith performs with Dagnee the baboon at the Florida Strawberry Festival on Sunday afternoon, Mar. 9, 2014. The act also included a border collie, birds and other monkeys.
Country recording artist Easton Corbin performs at the Florida Strawberry Festival on Sunday afternoon, Mar. 9, 2014.
Easton Corbin sings with a fiddler in his band while singing Alabama’s hit song. “If Ya Wanna Play in Texas,” on Sunday afternoon, Mar. 9, 2014
Two girls wait for the Robinson’s Pig Race to begin at the Florida Strawberry Festival on Sunday afternoon. Mar. 9, 2014. The pigs are coaxed to race around the track with the aid of Oreo cookies.
Miniature Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs race around the 150-feet track at the Florida Strawberry Festival on Sunday afternoon, Mar. 9, 2014.
A vendor hands a customer two ears of buttered corn at the Florida Strawberry Festival on Sunday afternoon, Mar. 9, 2014. Also sold at the festival were turkey legs, gyros, fried butter and fresh squeezed lemonade.
A family walks through a strawberry patch at the Florida Strawberry Festival on Sunday afternoon, Mar. 9, 2014.
Reid Perry of The Band Perry strums his guitar during a performance at the Florida Strawberry Festival on Sunday night, Mar. 9, 2014.
Lead vocalist Kimberly Perry sings her hit sing, “Better Dig Two,” as an encore performance at the Florida Strawberry Festival on Sunday night, Mar. 9, 2014.
PLANT CITY, Fla. – Each spring, the Florida Strawberry Festival draws patrons from across the state for agricultural exhibits, crafts, livestock, fine arts and horticulture.
This year, from Feb. 27 to March 9, guests fl0oded the festival on the weekends to learn about and celebrate the Florida strawberry. On the last day, musical guests including Easton Corbin and The Band Perry performed at the event.
Other country recording artists including Kelly Pickler, Rascal Flatts, Little Big Town and Josh Turner performed throughout the last month.
Other highlights of the festival included carnival rides, pig races, animal shows and homemade strawberry dishes.
Central to its focus, the festival preserves and enhances the agricultural and historical legacy of the Florida strawberry each year. From fried butter to veggie gyros, the event catered to all audiences.
Flip through the photos above to get a taste of the Florida Strawberry Festival.
All photos taken by WUFT photographer Amber Riccinto.
Results were mixed for Gainesville City Commission candidates on Tuesday night. With a little less than 15 percent of the eligible voting population casting ballots, incumbent Todd Chase claimed District 2, Craig Carter won District 3 and At-large Commission Seat 2 will be decided in a run-off election.
“It’s candidates and issues that drive people to the polls,” said Pam Carpenter, Alachua County Supervisor of Elections. “So it would seem that we have a pretty consistent group of voters and once again that 15 percent has turned out to vote.”
Annie Orlando will face Helen Warren in a run-off election on Tuesday April 8 for At-large Commission Seat 2. Neither candidate received 50 percent of the votes plus one. Warren received 45.14 percent of votes while Orlando received 44.05 percent.
Both candidates said they expected a run-off. Warren said she’s ready for the next three weeks of campaigning.
“I want to maintain a positive vision for where this city can go,” Warren said. “I feel that if there’s bridges that can be built, and I want to be able to build the bridge that’s strongest on both sides.”
Orlando saw the run-off as an opportunity to focus in on specifics.
“Now that I’m running against one person, I think that makes it a little bit easier to focus on the issues that we need to deal with,” Orlando said.
Orlando singled out Gainesville Regional Utilities as an issue she would like to focus on moving forward. She highlighted “getting the management over there back under control, getting it back on sound footing financially and start making good decisions again.”
Alachua County’s run-off protocol will be implemented in the coming days, Carpenter said.
“Once we finish with this election, the canvasing board will be meeting on Thursday to canvas the returns from the polling places and, of course, there will be some change in the results but not major change, I wouldn’t anticipate,” Carpenter said. “Then they’ll certify the election, and once that’s over, then we’ll do the post-election manual equipment audit, and then we’ll start programing the ballots for the run-off.”
Incumbent Susan Bottcher lost the seat for District 3 to Craig Carter by 184 votes.
“Because there are so many people who are angry about GRU and their bills that they feel that they needed to punish me for that, and perhaps that’s what this is about,” Bottcher said after she called Carter to congratulate him on the win.
“When the reality is far more complex than that. And I believe Mr. Carter, once he gets into office, he’s going to learn that things are far more complex than what he thought.”
Carter was optimistic at the results party at his home.
“I’m very excited and extremely humbled,” Carter said. “The voters have spoken, and they’re trusting me with District 3, which is amazing without a doubt.”
Todd Chase had an easier time and won the seat in District 2 with 56.95 percent of the votes.
“(The result) tells me that I’m doing something right for the people in District 2, and I’m excited about that,” Chase said at his Beef ‘O’Brady’s results party.
“We have a plan for the future, but I think that the commission got off track a little bit with their vision and dream of a future that’s too far out while we forgot about the people struggling today,” Chase said.
Chase explained he believes the commission focused too much on future ideas rather than making the necessary, incremental changes the city needs now. He hopes to “make Gainesville a better Gainesville.”
Katie Campbell, Erica A. Hernandez, Haley Stracher and Cassandra Vangellow contributed reporting.
Nicholas Tarr was a midshipman on leave from the U.S. Naval Academy when he died in Inverness on Aug. 9, 2012.
Tarr, 21, was driving on Old Floral City Road when he failed to recognize a curve. His car hit a tree and split in two, throwing Tarr from his 2003 Lincoln sedan.
The curves in Citrus County roads are well-known dangers in the community. Roads particularly difficult to navigate will have an opportunity to become safer with improvements installed this summer, according to a Citrus County press release.
In February, the Florida Department of Transportation selected Citrus County to receive a $1.5-million grant to improve the safety of 141 curves on county roads. The safety installations include curve warning signs with solar-powered speed feedback signs, retro-reflective pavement markers along the curve edge lines and chevron signs, which feature arrows indicating a curve.
Areas that will receive improvements include Lecanto Highway, Pleasant Grove Road, Citrus Avenue, Withlacoochee Trail, Old Floral City Road, Fort Island Trail, Homosassa Trail, Ozello Trail and Gobbler Drive.
These nine roads were part of a study completed in 2012 by the FDOT. According to the study, these areas were chosen because of the number of crashes that have occurred there in recent years.
The areas that were studied by the FDOT were the site of 185 crashes in the past three years with a total of 156 injuries and two fatalities, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.
Kris Carson, an FDOT spokeswoman, said Citrus County was awarded the grant because of the results of this study.
“The whole goal is to reduce lane-departure crashes, and we’re finding that a lot of these happen on roads with curves,” Carson said.
The FDOT normally handles state roads, but because of the Citrus County study they were able to recognize the needs of local roads.
“Whenever we can take different grant money and help the locals make their roads safer, that’s something we definitely want to do,” Carson said.
Citrus County is the first of the five counties in its FDOT district – which also includes Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties – to receive safety improvements, according to Carson. The other counties will also receive grants.
Tobey Phillips, public information officer and a lifelong resident of Citrus County, said these roads could be difficult to navigate if the driver is unfamiliar with the curves.
Phillips said this grant was a pleasant surprise for Citrus County because no action was taken by the county to receive it. It is in the budget now, and because of the grant, the city gets the chance to make the necessary improvements.
“It’s huge to us because we know it needs to be done,” Phillips said.
Kitty Hicks, an employee at Wayne’s Citrus Cycles in Floral City, said roads such as Fort Island Trail, Ozello Trail and Gobbler Road are long, curvy and very popular for riding motorcycles.
Hicks, who enjoys riding these trails with her husband, said these safety improvements will mean a lot.
“Any visible markings for a motorcyclist to see will make a huge difference,” she said.
Nicole del Castillo produced this update.