William Elliott’s house is sinking.
The slab of concrete his house was built on is cracked and broken, the land boggy and the house heavy, “getting lower and lower in this muck,” he said.
Inside, a long hallway of puckered green carpet shows remnants of flooding.
When it rains, it doesn’t drain. It floods. That’s what happens when you build on swamp, he said.
Elliott, 63, thought he’d live his last years where he spent the last four decades: up his long, muddied driveway off US-301 in Hawthorne.
He looks out over his 12 acres and sighs.
“I just want to put my ‘for sale’ sign out there.”
Before Tuesday’s public hearing, Elliott said he planned on moving if Alachua County commissioners voted to send the Envision Alachua sector plan to the state, which would widen roads and develop near swampland around his home.
The county’s current comprehensive plan, a blueprint for future growth and development in Alachua County, will remain intact for now.
Envision Alachua, proposed by Weyerhaeuser timber company (formerly known as Plum Creek), would have amended the comprehensive plan and allowed the corporation to use about 5,000 acres for mixed-use development in lands east of Newnans Lake. The company is one of the largest landowners in the nation, holding about 50,000 acres in Alachua County. Envision Alachua promised to bring 30,000 jobs in research, agriculture and manufacturing during the next 50 years. Some of those jobs, Weyerhaeuser officials and supporters said, would go to poor residents of east Gainesville.
Before Tuesday’s meeting, more than 270 residents showed up for three separate public hearings to voice their concerns to commissioners.
Those for and against Weyerhaeuser’s plan were divided. They fought over jobs and swampland, with Envision Alachua detractors outnumbering its supporters by a 3-to-1 ratio.
They fought over east Gainesville. They fought over Alachua County.
But what is life like in eastern Alachua County?
Elliott raised two young girls on his own.
He worked two jobs. At times, he didn’t have a day off for five years.
“My whole life was revolving around the jobs,” he said, gripping his cane, shaking his head.
Before retiring in 2009 due to a disability, he commuted from Hawthorne to Gainesville for 36 years.
“I started out from the bottom: I washed dishes, I pushed lawns, I worked in construction, I worked on farms,” he said. “I worked for minimum wage – I didn’t have no choice about that, but then when I got a little bit better job, I made a little more money. That’s how you do. You start out crawling before you can walk or run. That’s reality.”
That’s how it is on the east side, he said.
“If I can get up and go all the way over there… close to 20 miles one way every day and back, I’m quite sure that people who live in town can do the same thing,” Elliott said.
Elliott lives on Social Security benefits now – bringing in $1,105 a month. After his bills are paid, he’s left with $100. He said he sometimes has to choose between food and medicine. He makes sandwiches for supper.
To him, the jobs promised by Envision Alachua were “a bunch of smoke in mirrors.” Propaganda, he said, for the company to get their way about things.
One proposed job site would have been 12 to 15 miles from east Gainesville, he said, and most people who don’t have jobs don’t have cars.
“Why don’t they put the jobs in east Gainesville, where the people of east Gainesville live at? That’s contradictory, if you ask me about it.”
He said, in an equal opportunity country, there was no guarantee those in east Gainesville would have gotten those jobs in the 11.2-million-square-foot development.
“I can be in Putnam County in about three minutes… I don’t even have to go that far to be in three different counties,” he said. “That’s a lot closer to where I live at than east Gainesville.”
He recalls growing up, barefoot, running through grass in a rural area where he thought the swamp was a buffer between him and the city.
“Sometimes a swamp is just meant to be a swamp,” he said.
He remembers one foggy night at 2 a.m., driving out of Windsor on Highway 26 when he approached a herd of about 100 or more deer.
“And I stopped in that herd of deer, and the deer was looking at me, and I was looking at them, and for a moment there it was kind of like we bonded. They didn’t fear me, and I could literally reach out my car and touch those wild animals… and they didn’t run, they weren’t afraid of me right then. And for five minutes or so, I just enjoyed that moment,” he said.
“You can’t put a price on things like that, because once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
The nursing student
East Gainesville needs a doctor.
Rusty, old cars sit in the driveway and colorful, fading homes still bear Christmas lights. Frayed curtains hang in the windows, and chipped paint appears to peel off doors. Chunks of brick are missing from the walkways.
Carla Lewis, 45, sits on her front porch, looking out at the streets she grew up on. The streets she knows so well.
“I used to work these streets,” she said.
Lewis, dressed in scrubs, is studying to be a nurse. She has a 4.0 at City College. But in 2010, she said, she was a different person.
She worked as a prostitute. She smoked cocaine.
After she went to jail in 2010, she decided to live right.
By then, she couldn’t find a job for two years due to her criminal charges.
Her second chance came in December 2012, she said, when she rang the bell for The Salvation Army.
Now, she works for the Greater Duval Neighborhood Association – helping people with job skill training, criminal record sealing and the area’s economic development.
That’s the pressing issue in east Gainesville, she said.
“At this point, I don’t care anything about the development; I hope they don’t bring it,” she said. “It ain’t time yet, because the people over here, we’re not in a condition right now to enjoy any of it. We’re not. Yeah, the city is. It’s underdeveloped over here, yes. We need businesses, yes. Do we want them before we’re taken care of? No.”
New development won’t help those living in east Gainesville, she said, if the people are not prepared for it.
“You can still bring them [developments] over here, and we’re still not going to qualify,” she said. “A lot of us are not in economic status to qualify for houses, we need education and job training and better jobs.”
Lewis said if the development doesn’t change the lives of the people first, it does no good.
“Other people see money and land, and places that they can build and make a dollar. That’s home for us,” she said. “What about the people that live here? What’s going to happen to them? They’re going to get lost in the hustle, and that’s usually what happens when they do developments like that before taking care of the residents that are there.”
Lewis graduates in December and hopes to do an externship that will land her a job.
“I had to rebrand myself,” she said.
Mayor Ed Braddy gave her a certificate of merit last year for her work in the neighborhood association. She said she is dedicated to giving back to the neighborhood and showing them what can be done to make a better life.
“I met some good people out there, and I always said I gotta make that time count for something, so to me that was like my research. Bad research — but it was research, and I can’t forget about those people,” she said.
Lewis lives in a divided home.
Her fiancé, Andrew Miles, 57, saw Envision Alachua as a way for east Gainesville’s voice to be heard from the moment of conception. Miles said his pension brings about $400 a month.
Miles currently works as a mechanic and a handyman. He left his job of 17 years as a behavior analyst at the Tacachale Center, a residential facility in east Gainesville, following a 1998 felony drug charge that prevented him from renewing his certification.
“I can still vote, I can buy weapons,” he said. “But I can’t get my license back.”
He also fostered as many as 30 children in 15 years.
He likes raising children, he said, and it brought extra income. But now he needs work.
“Sometimes it’s a wonder the lights don’t go off,” he said.
To him, development on the east side would be a blessing from God.
“I see a lot of possibilities coming on the horizon,” he said.
He recalls when he was a kid and Butler Plaza was swampland.
“That’s what I see – history repeating itself,” he said, musing on the possibilities of Envision Alachua.
“To me, I see the bigger picture of it – we have the opportunity to really effect change.”
Miles said he remembers when they built a flower park on East University Avenue.
To him, development for the east side would be like building a whole garden.
“I’m sick and tired of being told this is gonna happen, that’s gonna happen,” he said. “It’s going to be built up now or later. Now, we have some input of it; people have the opportunity to get in at the blueprint.”
He works with a program titled Men of the east, still in its early stages, but with hopes of providing men the skills and job training necessary to go out in the field.
“We can be such a force,” he said.“We have so much muscle and we haven’t even flexed yet.”
The job seeker
Jeff Williams has filled out more than 200 job applications since 2012.
Not one called back.
Not even a single traffic ticket in 10-plus years, he said, but a grand theft auto charge from 2006 has held him back.
A judge signed papers to expunge his record on Feb. 11, and he now has a second chance.
To Williams, 50, Envision Alachua would have been a blessing.
“In order for a person to start again, they have to have a starting point,” he said.
The plan would have been his starting point.
Williams said the economic struggle has been a big part of his life.
“For the most part, we’re on the lower end of the bracket over here,” he said. “There’s not very much industry; there’s not very many jobs available.”
His wife, Alesha, works at the University of Florida Student Health Care Center. Their monthly income is about $1,650 a month.
“It’s very strenuous to see him willing to work, wanting to work, and you’re just being tested all the way around,” she said. Envision Alachua would bring diversity, she said, and minimize crime.
Williams said a big problem in east Gainesville is first-time offenders selling drugs in order to compensate for money they don’t have because they don’t have an opportunity to go back to work.
“I’ve been in that situation, and I can understand the willingness to work. If you make something, people will come,” he said.“They’ll say: ‘If I can get me a little piece of a job, I don’t have to stay on the streets no more, I don’t have to sell dope no more.’”
Envision Alachua would have offered east Gainesville residents an opportunity to come in on the ground floor, he said. The jobs would be the engine that moves them along.
“You could kind of move laterally in the company while it’s still growing,” he said. “We can be happy with that; we can be proud to say ‘you know, I’m going to retire here.’”
That’s what he’s looking for, he said, a job to work with longevity.
“We wait,” Alesha said, “we wait.”
“I thank God for my wife, because she’s a strong one,” Williams said, holding her hand.
“And she’s been carrying this house since I haven’t been able to work, and without her this boat would have sank a lot time ago.”
County commissioners agree that east Gainesville needs help.
Envision Alachua had the right idea, Commissioner Robert Hutchinson said. It was just in the wrong place.
The commission decided instead on a public workshop to discuss growth along Waldo Road in east Gainesville.
Hutchinson wants to replace the existing Tacachale resident facility, which is currently falling into disrepair.
He said the project would save about 1,100 jobs in east Gainesville that the state of Florida might otherwise eliminate if the facility is forced to close in the next few years.
Weyerhaeuser has the opportunity sell the county part of the land they laid out for Envision Alachua, of which a portion could be used for a new Tacachale Center.
Hutchinson said, “The main goal is to put development where it ought to be, in my opinion, which is along Waldo Road.”
For the people living and working in east Gainesville, their hopes and dreams for a better life, better jobs and a brighter future lie in the crosshairs of what Hutchinson said is the biggest decision this community has faced since the University of Florida came to town.