Suwannee Valley Times is distributed into the following cities and towns: Lake City, Live Oak, Madison, Branford, Dowling Park, Falmouth, Lee, Wellborn, Jasper, White Springs, Fort White, High Springs and Alachua

2021 YEAR IN REVIEW – LOCAL AND STATE

By Tami Stevenson

Supply chain perils, vaccine breakthroughs of coronavirus variants, people not wanting to return to work because they were making more on unemployment, along with other pandemic woes, has made 2021 only slightly less challenging than 2020. One thing better in 2021 is the one-way anti-covid arrows down the aisles of grocery stores has disappeared!

Although 2021 will go down in infamy along with 2020, there were many good things accomplished in our North Florida area by business owners and residents alike.

January


Elected Officials


Ricky Gamble was sworn in as the new Suwannee County Property Appraiser, along with Clerk of the Circuit Court Barry Baker, Sheriff Sam St. John, newly elected Third Circuit State Attorney John Durrett, Public Defender Cliff Wilson Jr., and Tax Collector Sharon Jordan. Due to COVID-19 quarantine, Jennifer Musgrove Kinsey, newly elected Supervisor of Elections, could not attend

.
George Curtis was appointed the new Live Oak City Manager.

February

Jasper, Florida becomes home to a cannabis center

Above Photo:Green Point Research celebrates the official opening of its operational headquarters in Hamilton County, Florida, February 1, 2021. -Photo: Submitted

One of the largest hemp centers of its kind: Green Point Research Cannabis Center of Excellence sits on 32 acres in Hamilton County and is described as an international phytocannabinoid-rich biomass originator and processor. They celebrated the official opening of its Hamilton County headquarters with a ribbon-cutting event held in partnership with Hamilton County Board of Commissioners, Hamilton County Economic Development Authority and North Florida Economic Development Partnership.

Also in February, Pat Hines, a Suwannee County resident, found civil war artifacts on her Century Pioneer Family Farm and loaned them to the Suwannee County Historical Museum where they are on display.

She also published her first book written about her great, great, great grandfather, Christmas Hemming, who was a slave. The book is called Christmas in the South: A Proud Southern Heritage, and can be found on Amazon.

Siegmeister -Photo: SVT Archives

The most infamous 2021 event in our area took place when ex-State Attorney Jeff Siegmeister was indicted on multiple charges that ranged from tax fraud to extortion and bribery at the end of February. He faces maximum penalties of up to 129 years imprisonment. He was detained February 26, and officially arrested on March 1, in Arizona. Siegmeister remains in custody, without bond, by an order of detention, being considered a flight risk.
Along with Siegmeister, Attorney Marion Michael O’Steen, was also listed as a co-defendant.
In April they both pleaded not guilty to all counts.
The trial has been postponed several times. The latest of which was in September, moving the new trial date to this February. 2022.


March

Werner  -Photo: Submitted


Werner Enterprises, a premier transportation and logistics provider, opened a new Lake City terminal, located at 879 NW Bell Street, adding nearly 70 jobs to the Lake City area. The 91,000 square-foot building sits on 36 developed acres and includes the latest driver amenities, including a driver’s lounge, laundry and vending machines, showers, a company store, fitness room, driver storage and a dog run area.

New Polaris Ranger for LOPD

Above Photo: LOPD has a new recruit.  -Photo: Courtesy LOPD


Live Oak Police Chief Keith Davis was happy his department received a new Polaris Ranger for Project Lifesaver, through a grant in March. The vehicle has a great impact on their search and rescue efforts in the community, bringing loved ones home, as part of Project Lifesaver. The ranger is used, from time to time, to patrol the Heritage Park & Gardens trail where the park has poles set up so that regular vehicles cannot travel through. They also use a gulf cart that was acquired through a grant for search and rescue at the park.

Businesses protected from COVID lawsuits
Florida SB 72 signed by Governor DeSantis to protect businesses from COVID lawsuits became law, March 29. As businesses and entities struggle to re-open or keep their doors open, a growing concern was expressed that unfounded or opportunistic lawsuits for COVID-19-related claims could threaten their financial survival. The concern was that time, attention, and financial resources diverted to respond to the lawsuits could be the difference between individuals and entities succeeding or failing as they attempt to emerge from the pandemic. One protection that has been offered is the provision of heightened legal immunity from COVID-19 claims to fend off meritless lawsuits and preserve scant resources. This bill provides crucial liability protection to individuals, businesses, educational institutions, religious organizations, and health care providers for liability claims related to COVID-19.

April

Robotic surgery comes to Lake City

-Photo: Courtesy of LCMC
Lake City Medical Center Makes Major Investment In Advancing Robotic Surgery – $1.6M investment in new technology added to multi-million dollar expansion to increase access to advanced healthcare in Columbia County and surrounding areas.
Following the unveiling of construction to expand Lake City Medical Center, the hospital announced that it added another technology to the hospital in the form of a da Vinci Xi Surgical Robot by Intuitive Surgical. On the leading edge of surgical robotics, the new surgical system can be used across a spectrum of minimally invasive surgical procedures and has been optimized for multi-quadrant surgeries in the areas of gynecology, urology, and general surgery. Surgical robotics at LCMC is being used for General Surgery procedures including but not limited to cholecystectomy, appendectomy, hernia repair, and gynecology procedures. Those who are candidates for surgery using this system can look forward to shorter recovery times, minimized surgical exposure, and smaller and more precise incisions.

Julia Willis -NFC Photo

Hamilton County student Julia Willis was selected for the 2021 All-Florida Academic Team at North Florida College in April.


Florida gains House seat—Surpasses New York to become 3rd largest state. The U.S. Census Bureau released its 2020 census results in April. Florida’s population has grown over 14 percent in the last ten years, according to the apportionment data, from 18,900,773 in 2010, to 21,570,527 in 2020. While Florida’s population grew by 2,669,754 residents, according to the report, states like New York and California showed population declines. Florida has surpassed New York and is now the third most populous state in the nation, with California and Texas in front. Florida will gain a congressional seat in the process. Florida’s delegation will be 28 members, along with the two Senate seats, that will bring Florida’s presidential electors to 30.

May

Legal Notice HB 35 is big win for newspapers
Governor Ron DeSantis signed HB 35 into law on May 7. The Legal Notices Bill, which originally sought to remove newspaper publishing requirements all together, had newspapers in a frantic uproar. After all, legal notices have been a consistent source of revenue for newspapers that qualify, since – forever. Taking legal notices out of newspapers could have caused the demise of the newspaper industry all together.
Unwavering resistance from organizations such as the Florida Press Association finally convinced enough law-makers to withhold their vote until a compromise could be reached stating legal notices are an historical source of revenue for newspapers. After the compromise, the bill passed with a vote of 105 Y’s to 9 N’s.
The bill took effect January 1, 2022. Businesses, school districts, judicial and government agencies, etc., that need to publish legal and public notices would not see much change from the way things were. The only real difference, it seems, is a choice to either publish their legal and public notices online on a qualifying newspaper’s website and/or in print. The pricing is not expected to change either. It was a great win for the printed newspaper as we know it. Many quietly celebrated this momentous occasion.
As always, legals will still be published on the statewide legal notice website:  www.FloridaPublicNotices.com.

Local and nationally known gospel singer/musician becomes full-time pastor

Above Photo: Pastor Earl Green, right, along with wife, Wanda Jean Barrett Green and granddaughter, Sammi Green. 


Nationally known gospel singer Earl Green, of Lake City, became the full-time pastor at Lighthouse Christian Center (LCC) in Mayo.
Green, throughout his musical career of nearly 50 years, had the good fortune to appear on the Grand Ole Opry twice. He has rubbed elbows with – played alongside of – or opened for – some of the biggest names in country music, names like Merle Haggard, Charlie Daniels, Willie Nelson, Travis Tritt, Crystal Gayle, Wynona Judd, Alan Jackson and Vernon Gosdin, to name a few.
He began as an interim pastor at LCC, but found after months of fulfilling his duties, he noticed something – a change. He was falling in love with the congregation. He was connecting with them in ways he never thought possible. After months of searching, the church still had no pastor. He couldn’t leave them without a shepherd, so he, along with his wife, Wanda, decided to take on the role of full-time pastor there to fill the void.
During an interview with Pastor Green last year, he told the Suwannee Valley Times that the last thing on his list was to ever be a pastor,
“Every time I pull up to that church I am so humbled. I cannot believe where God has put me and what I have.”

Branford student, Barrett Young, one of 20 selected in nation – out of more than 6,000 candidates – to 2021 U.S. Presidential Scholars Program

Above Photo: Barrett Young, Branford High School -Photo: Submitted
Eight Florida Students were named 2021 U.S. Presidential Scholars. U.S. Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel Cardona announced the 57th class of U.S. Presidential Scholars, recognizing 161 high school seniors for their accomplishments in academics, the arts and career and technical education fields.
“The 2021 Presidential Scholars represent extraordinary achievements for our extraordinary times,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. He saluted these outstanding young people for their achievements, service, character and continued pursuit of excellence. He added their examples make him proud and hopeful about the future. “Honoring them can remind us all of the great potential in each new generation and renew our commitment to helping them achieve their dreams.”

June

In-Person programs started back at Regional Libraries
Finally, June 1, people could physically go back to the libraries to gather for the ever popular programs that libraries offer. They extended their hours and held some programs outside and some in the meeting rooms. It was a start on the road to normalcy.

The Class of 2021 was more fortunate than the Class of 2020, as family and friends were allowed to gather in the stadiums to celebrate graduation in person.
It was particularly special because of the times we live in. The pandemic took so much from graduates in 2020, but not this year! It was a year with a common thread woven in the spirits of all 2021 graduates, which says – “We’re getting back to normal!” Families and loved ones were able to attend without limitations. Although most schools streamed live as well, there were real people in the stands. The stadiums were filled to overflowing with tears and cheers, laughter and joy as they watched their loved ones physically walk down the stage and receive their high school diplomas.

Festivals begin again
Another thing that was better about 2021 than the prior year is that festivals were making a comeback. Many organizers of events like the Wellborn Blueberry Festival, the Branford July 4 celebration, Christmas on the Square, Stephen Foster’s Festival of Lights and others, were happily overwhelmed by the unexpected attendance at these events. A new festival even emerged out of the ashes of the pandemic, the Wellborn Cornbread Festival. Residents can look forward to their 2022 event sometime in the fall.

Futch’s Tractor Depot comes to Madison and Live Oak
Futch’s Tractor Depot decided to expand during the pandemic as well. They acquired Gordon Tractor’s two locations in Madison and Live Oak.

The Madison location is at 491 SW Range Avenue. The Live Oak location is at 1722 Ohio Avenue South. Along with the newly acquired stores, Futch’s other outlets are located in St. Augustine Beach, Keystone Heights, Hastings and Palatka, Florida.

July

Cottage Food laws and home-based businesses – Restrictions loosened – Can now mail cottage food products – Revenue cap increased
Known as the Home Sweet Home Act, HB 663 took effect July 1. It increased the yearly maximum gross sales from $50,000 to $250,000. Under the previous cottage food laws, owners could receive orders and payments online from their website, for example, but had to personally deliver the goods. HB 663 allows cottage food products to be sold, offered for sale, and paid for by mail order, along with one of the biggest benefits, other than the gross sales increase – it permits cottage food products to be delivered by mail.
HB 403, which also took effect July 1, provided that a home-based business may operate in an area zoned for residential use and may not be prohibited, restricted, regulated, or licensed in a manner different from other businesses in a local government’s jurisdiction. Home-based businesses can now have up to two employees that are not residents of the home.

Local farm boy, Kaleb Skinner, takes 5th at PDGA Junior World Championships

Above Photo: Kaleb Skinner in Kansas athe tournament. He is getting prepared and deciding which disc he wants to use for his next throw. -Photo: Submitted by Kristy Skinner


The then 15 year old, Suwannee County native, took 5th place in the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA) Junior World Championships in Emporia, Kansas.

August

Jill Adams named CEO of Lake City Medical Center
Published in August, HCA Healthcare North Florida Division announced the appointment of Jill Adams as Chief Executive Officer of Lake City Medical Center.

Jill Adams - Courtesy Photo

Census data showed Suwannee and Columbia Counties had grown
The U.S. Census Bureau released its 2020 numbers showing Florida grew within the last ten years by 14.6 percent, while the nation’s growth was only 7.4 percent overall. The current population in Florida is now 21,538,187.

The data show Suwannee County grew by 1,923 residents, a 4.6 percent increase with a total population of 43,474. Columbia County grew by 2,167 people with a 3.2 percent increase and a total population of 69,698. Hamilton County fell some 795 residents showing a 5.4 percent decrease in its population with a new total of 14,004. Madison County also fell by 1,256 residents showing a 6.5 percent decrease with a current population of 17,968. Alachua County grew from 247,336 to 278,468, showing a 12.6 percent increase in population.

September

Local Teenagers provide meals to shut-ins

Above Photo: One of the recipients enjoying the home delivery of food is Ron, of Live Oak, shown above, with Jennifer and Stephanie Chen. -Photo Submitted

Since the pandemic hit in 2020, Jennifer Chen, 16, along with her sister, Stephanie Chen, 15, whose parents own Live Oak’s Fusion Buffet, missed some of their regular customers. Some became shut-ins, afraid to go out into the public, so the sisters decided to deliver meals to their homes in 2021. Their efforts were so well received the deliveries blossomed into a weekly thing.

Local Church, Harvest Fellowship of Jasper, becomes debt-free in midst of pandemic

Above Photo: Pastors Danny and Charlotte Henderson were so honored to be able to announce Harvest’s debt-free status during the church’s 29th Anniversary Celebration. -Photo: Ruby Holton


As many churches shut down in 2020, Pastor Danny Henderson decided to hold outside services instead of closing the doors at Harvest. During that time and throughout 2021, the church continued to thrive financially, allowing them to pay off an $800,000 debt eleven years early in September of 2021.
Pastor Henderson, along with his wife, Charlotte, and members of the church now look forward to the future as Harvest’s debt-free status will make room for many more opportunities to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Pastor Henderson says uncommon faith produces uncommon living and they are reaping the fruit of it.

Terran Orbital announces in September, the construction of the world’s largest, state-of-the-art, spacecraft facility at Merritt Island, Florida, which is expected to create over 2,000 new jobs.

October

Minimum wage now $10 Hr.
Florida’s minimum wage saw the largest increase in its history on September 30, from $8.65 to $10 per hour. Moving forward, as per a constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2020, the minimum hourly wage will increase by $1 each year until it reaches $15 by September 30, 2026.

November

Stephen Foster announces, after taking 2020 off, the Festival of Lights would begin again from December 10 through 24. Visitors packed the park each night.

December

Above Photo: Governor Ron DeSantis received the Defender of Freedom award at “Let Us Worship” in Miami on December 31. -Photo: Courtesy

DeSantis proposes civilian volunteer force
During a visit to the Pensacola National Guard Armory, Governor Ron DeSantis announced more than $100 million in funding proposals to support Florida’s National Guard and establish the Florida State Guard, a civilian volunteer force that will assist the National Guard in state-specific emergencies. The $3.5 million it would take to establish the Florida State Guard will enable civilians to be trained in the best emergency response techniques. By establishing the Florida State Guard, Florida will become the 23rd state with a state guard recognized by the federal government.