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Cracker Trail crosses county

SEBRING — Belt buckles, boots and 10-gallon hats were the dress code at Cracker Trail Elementary School on Wednesday in anticipation of the arrival of the Cracker Trail riders. The school’s administration let the kids break dress code and rearranged lunch schedules so they could line around the bus loop and welcome the riders.

The sharp crack of the whips and the neighing of horses and clomping of hooves announced the arrival of the Cracker Trail riders. The first half dozen riders rode in and cracked their whips and showed off their horses and horsemanship skills to the young students ushering in the dozens more horses that were carrying more riders or pulling buggies.

The children pointed out their favorite horses and buggies and ooed and awed at the sights and sounds before them. The students smiled and laughed, but also held their noses at the more odoriferous parts of the parade of horses.

The start of the long standing tradition is a bit ambiguous but staff members said it started just a couple of years after the school opened in 1991. The trail ride began in 1987 when a group of like-minded individuals formed the Florida Cracker Trail Association. The route they follow is the return trip of the original Cracker Trail when cowboys herded cattle from Fort Pierce, across the the state and eventually to Tampa where they would eventually ship some of the cattle to Cuba.

The Cracker Trail riders annually step off in Bradenton and continue west until they reach Fort Pierce. The riders’ presence at CTE was particularly poignant for Stephenie Long, 31; she was a student at CTE in the ‘90s. Wednesday she watched the parade of horses with her 6-year-old son, a student in Dawn Ziegler’s first grade class.

“I always loved it,” Long said. “This is his first time. It’s really nice to share the experience with him. He is beginning to get my love for horses. They are so peaceful.”

Aaron got to wear his mother’s old cowboy hat, which was a special treat for him. Long said she loved attending CTE and said they always had “awesome field trips and made learning fun.”

“The Florida Cracker Trail is a significant piece of the history of Florida as well as of our region,” said John Varady, of the School Board of Highlands County. “Even today, cattle remains a major industry in Florida. Each year when the Florida Cracker Trail riders visit the school, history comes to life for the students and provides them with a link to the past and a better understanding of our local history.”

The teachers appeared to enjoy the riders as much as their students did. Katie Wick said her third grade class was very excited to see the riders.

Alyissa Mitchell is in Nancy Piller’s fifth grade class and loved the horses and riders. This was her second time seeing them.

“It’s kinda fun but it also kinda stinks when they poop,” Mitchell said. “My favorite part was the pretty horses.”

Parking/density issues call for a revision of Lakeview Drive project

SEBRING — Nearby residents and Sebring City Council members agreed they would like to see redevelopment of the Lakeview Terrace Apartments; but they also believe the proposed plan does not include enough parking and the zoning for the property should not be changed.

The owner of the property at 2520 Lakeview Drive is the Hollywood, Florida-based Berkshire Business Investments LLC, which purchased it in August 2019 for $275,000.

Javier Frachi is listed as the applicant on the request to the City of Sebring for a Future Land Use Amendment and rezoning of the property from medium density residential (up to 12 dwelling units per acre) to high density residential (up to 40 dwelling units per acre).

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Frachi described the plans to rehabilitate and remodel what had been an abandoned apartment building and to build two houses on an adjoining parcel.

Currently the property has 15 apartments — 11 studio units, three one-bedroom/one-bath units and one office. The parking space can accommodate more than 16 vehicles, according to a proposed plan that had been submitted to the city.

In order to add value to the vacant land at the back of the property, Frachi proposes to build two small two-bedroom/two-bathroom houses, enhance the landscaping, remodel the 14 apartments and continue to have an office on site.

Frachi told council the plan was to “remodel, refurbish it and make it almost brand new for affordable housing in Sebring. It needs to be completely renovated.”

Councilman Charlie Lowrance said the plan’s drawings need to be to scale and there needs to be more parking for guests.

Councilman Lenard Carlisle said his mother managed the apartments in the mid-1960s and he lived in one of the units. He said even then there wasn’t enough parking and not all of the apartments were rented, even then.

Neighboring resident Gary Blackman said the property should be consistent with the area and high density zoning is not conducive to the area.

Lowrance suggested 10 to 12 dwelling units with no houses.

Frachi said he would develop a new plan so everyone is on board.

Council tabled the ordinance that would have changed the zoning and future land use.

The plan for the property noted that the Lakeview Terrace Apartments property was built in 1924, but since 2009 the property seems to have been abandoned.

Berkshire Business Investments, according to its proposal to the city, plans to invest at least an additional $250,000 in the property.

University leaders, lawmakers slam consolidation plans

TALLAHASSEE — A House proposal seeking to abolish the independent status of two Florida universities is spurring a fierce fight, as a bipartisan group of legislators on Wednesday decried the plan.

The plan, included in a sweeping higher-education bill (HB 7087), would merge New College of Florida with Florida State University and fold the Florida Polytechnic University into the University of Florida, in an effort to save the state “tens of millions of dollars,” according to bill sponsor Rep. Randy Fine.

But leaders at both New College and Florida Polytechnic, along with a group of lawmakers, questioned the purported savings and called on the Legislature to do more research before the consolidation plans are approved.

“The disruption is way more than the savings would justify and completely threatens this unique school,” New College President Donal O’Shea told reporters at a press conference in the Capitol on Wednesday.

O’Shea said merging New College, a liberal-arts school in Sarasota, with FSU would offer “microscopic” savings to the state because its budget is less than 1 percent of the entire state university system’s budget. Furthermore, he said it would be a “shame” to see the school lose its independent accreditation because of “hasty legislation.”

Sen. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican and chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, also slammed the proposal in an opinion piece co-authored by state Reps. Wengay Newton, D-St. Petersburg; Will Robinson, R-Bradenton; Margaret Good, D-Sarasota; Tommy Gregory, R-Sarasota; and James Buchanan, R-Osprey.

“A significant decision, such as this, should require time, workshops, and empirical data to formulate the best solution for all parties. Like with any bill in the legislative process, it is imperative that we vet the idea in committee and allow all institutions and stakeholders to voice their opinions and concerns,” the bipartisan group of lawmakers wrote Wednesday.

Lawmakers from Sarasota and Manatee counties are not the only ones pushing back against the measure.

Senate Education Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, told The News Service of Florida last week that she would oppose “any policy that would move Polytech under any university.”

“We have not looked at any of the benefits that have been claimed by the House,” Stargel said Feb. 12, the day the House proposal was rolled out.

While most of the pushback is focused on policy, some university leaders and lawmakers also have opposed the proposal because they were caught off-guard by the bill.

Fine, R-Palm Bay, said last week he did not warn officials at New College or at Florida Polytechnic that the bill was coming, but that FSU and UF were “well-versed on the plans.”

However, O’Shea told reporters on Wednesday that FSU officials told him they do not support the merger.

“They were as surprised as we were and they are opposed. For them, New College would be a distraction. They are moving in other directions and for us it wouldn’t be good,” O’Shea said.

Neither FSU or UF responded to requests for comment on Wednesday. Fine declined to say what kind of feedback he has received from FSU and UF about his proposal.

House budget chief Travis Cummings, R-Fleming Island, said in an interview Wednesday that he is still vetting the measure.

“While our taxpayers will greatly benefit from this legislation, we look forward to hearing from all the stakeholders,” he said.

According to a House staff analysis of the bill, the university mergers would save the state an “indeterminate” amount of money and any potential savings would only be known after the transfer occured. Under the bill, the colleges would be required to start the consolidation process in July.

The House Appropriations Committee is likely to hear the education proposal next week, chairman Cummings said. His committee is the only stop the bill faces before a full House vote.

O’Shea and Florida Polytechnic President Randy Avent said this week they hoped to meet with Fine to hash out concerns about the consolidation plans. The presidents also want to meet with Senate President Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who last week said he is open to discussing the merger.

As they deal with the legislative proposal in Tallahassee, both college leaders have been addressing concerns of students, who are fearful about the potential mergers.

For instance, Avent worries that discussion of the proposal, even if it does not pass, will have an impact on the school’s enrollment because some students may not want to join a school with a potential shake-up on the horizon.

“I don’t think it will decimate it, but I think we will take a hit,” Avent said.

County to upgrade boat ramps on Lake Istokpoga

SEBRING — Anglers wanting to take part in a fishing tournament on Lake Istokpoga may have some better launch sites in the near future.

Highlands County commissioners approved nearly $287,503 on Tuesday to make improvements at Lake Istokpoga Park on the north end of the lake and Windy Point Park on the southwest corner.

Of that, $254,276 would come from the Tourist Development Council (TDC) Lakes Improvement account, funds that have been sitting in wait for a project.

The other $33,227 was requested of the County Commission on Tuesday.

Lake Istokpoga Park will get expanded parking and a pavilion, and Windy Point would get a pavilion and extended dock, according to a presentation Tuesday by Casey Hartt, lead marketing consultant for the TDC.

Without those improvements, she said, it’s been hard to attract fishing tournaments — along with the associated out-of-town, short-term room rentals and side visits to local attractions and hospitality by tournament participants, she said.

- The building at Windy Point would cost $7,300 in labor and $8,200 in materials, for a total of $15,500.

- The building at Istokpoga Park would cost $27,300 in labor and $13,000 in materials, for a total of $40,300.

- Parking improvements at Istokpoga Park, the most expensive, would cost $40,000 in labor and $179,670 in materials, for a total of $219,670.

- Fitments at both parks, to give more places for boats to tie up, are estimated to cost $10,000 in labor and $2,033 in materials for a total of $12,033.

Hartt said there is also potential for the county to get a grant from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission to help pay for the improvements. The application period is from now through April.