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Suncoast Parkway extension opens Monday

Monday’s opening of the Suncoast Parkway extension will be a game-changer for Citrus County, officials say.

First, the convenience: Motorists can bypass all the traffic lights to get from U.S. 98 in Hernando County to to State Road 44 in Lecanto by taking the 70 mph toll road. They can also get off at the West Cardinal Road interchange.

And then there’s the expected economic impact. With a major roadway cutting through the heart of Citrus County, expect more restaurants, stores and businesses to invest in the community.

It’s already happening, said Crystal River Mayor Joe Meek, as evidenced by major chains acquiring property along County Roads 491 and 486.

“I think this is a very exciting time for Citrus County and Crystal River,” Meek said. “I think the parkway is going to have a positive impact on our area. This has been a decades-in-the-making project that has been supported by county commissions for years.”

mattbeck / Matthew Beck / Chronicle photo editor 

Works crews near West Crystal Oaks Drive and State Road 44 put the finishing touches on the soon-to-open Suncoast Parkway.

Meek said this new road “will enable our citizens access to a major metropolitan area but still enjoy the lifestyle they have here.”

“It is incumbent on is as we grow to maintain our character and quality of life,” he added.

Work began on the $135 million Suncoast Parkway 2 project in February 2018. The original contracted completion date was summer 2022 but work kept ahead of schedule. The new road will be funded entirely with toll revenues.

The project encompasses 13 miles of new roadway, two full interchanges – one at U.S. 98 in Hernando County and one at West Cardinal Street in Homosassa – and a partial interchange at State Road 44.

“The interchanges will improve safety and increase mobility for Hernando and Citrus County residents as these areas continue to undergo significant residential development,” Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) spokeswoman Angela Starke said.

The project includes the construction of four wildlife crossings and one wildlife culvert, 15 new bridges, two electronic tolling sites, related drainage, lighting, highway signing, traffic signalization, guardrail, and sidewalks.

Bicyclists and walkers will have to wait at least through April 1 to use the Suncoast Trail parallel to the road.

Josh Wooten, president and CEO of the Citrus County Chamber of Commerce, said the county has been “on an island without any major road network” and this will attract people who might work in Tampa but live and spend money here.

“I think this major investment of this road coming into our county is probably the biggest economic driver since Florida Power (now Duke Energy) broke ground in the 1960s,” Wooten said.

County Commission Chairman Ron Kitchen Jr. doesn’t anticipate an immediate influx of vehicles taking the new route. Any impact on economic development won’t be immediate either, he said.

Right now, the stretch from State Road 50 to its current terminus at U.S. 98 is not well-traveled and U.S. 98 is not clogged with traffic – mainly because it ends in mostly undeveloped land.

Extending it to State Road 44 might generate more traffic but, once again, unless people are heading to a specific destination it’s the same problem, Kitchen said.

That’s why the parkway ultimately needs to go to U.S. 19 near Red Level, he said.

“We will see more traffic if you have someplace to go,” he said.

Whether the parkway extension will spur economic development – as many have said – also remains to be seen.

“I think eventually it will make a difference,” Kitchen said.

Much of the new traffic that empties off State Road 44 is expected to turn west and head to U.S. 19 and head north.

Aware of that, Crystal River officials sought state funding to make improvements to Turkey Oak Drive so folks can bypass downtown and get to U.S. 19 faster.

With the opening, work will eventually begin on expanding the toll road another 3 miles from State Road 44 to County Road 486, about 1,500 feet east of the Pine Ridge entrance.


Local
Local Black community members to tell their stories at Black History Month event Saturday

Editor’s note: For generations, Black Americans have enriched Citrus County as landowners, farmers and educators, clergy, service industry workers and business people.

In celebration of Black History Month, the public is invited to listen to some of the stories from the Black community from 6 to 8 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 26, at the Old Courthouse Museum in Inverness.

The panel discussion can also be viewed on the Old Courthouse Heritage Museum YouTube channel. To get the YouTube link emailed to you, sign up at cccorthouse.org or call 352-341-6428.

Here is a preview of the event speakers, Cheryl Danley, Mable Sims Holloway, Raye Joyner and Bailey Wise, and the moderator, Donna Lucas:

Cheryl Danley: ‘Preserving a legacy’

In 1891, President Benjamin Harrison granted Gillium Washington, a freed slave, 160 acres of land in the area of Floral City that’s known as Russell Hill.

Cheryl Danley, Washington’s great-great-great-granddaughter, lives in the house at 12900 S. Danley Point that sits on 80 of those acres.

mattbeck / Photos by Matthew Beck / Chronicle photo editor 

Cheryl Danley.

In a 2014 oral history video from the Floral City Heritage Council, Danley’s mother, the late Laytha Danley, who died in 2019, talked about Russell Hill being a predominantly Black area with many property owners like her family.

However, being property owners didn’t keep them from experiencing segregation.

Recalling her childhood, Laytha said, “A school bus came to my area every day to pick up the white children, so my dad took us to school. The county gave him $32 a month for gas for driving us back and forth to school.”

She also recalled her mother working as a housekeeper for a woman whose daughter was her age and finishing high school at the same time.

The woman thought after high school Laytha would come and do housework for her, and when the woman approached Laytha’s mother about it, her mother told her Laytha was going to college.

“So, she decided if my mother had money to send me to college then she didn’t need a job with her, so she fired her,” she said.

Cheryl Danley, who lived most of her life in Detroit, Michigan, returned to her family’s home permanently in September 2021.

“I spent the first two years of my life here, we visited Florida annually ... and then when I studied ‘ag-econ’ in grad school at UF I visited my grandparents here monthly,” she said.

“I want to honor the vision of my great-great-great-grandfather who homesteaded this land and the memory of my grandfather who was the last remaining farmer from the Russell Hill community,” Cheryl Danley said. “They withstood many, many challenges to make a life for their children and their children. I am grateful to be the direct beneficiary. I want to preserve this legacy for future generations.”

Mable Sims Holloway: ‘Honoring our ancestors’

Mable Holloway, who lives in Brooksville, believes in honoring one’s ancestors.

“My ancestors were slaves, from Ghana,” she said. “I was with Head Start for 22 years, and at one time there were five African women who came to my classroom for Black history with the children.”

Over the years, Holloway has curated artifacts and tools from Ghana that her ancestors used during their slavery.

These are prized possessions of hers, as are her memories.

“My great-great-grandmother, Grandma Precious, had blue eyes and freckles, straight white hair and a deep voice that used to scare me,” she said. “One of my family names is Oneal, but it’s spelled different ways. Sometimes it’s ‘Oneil’ or ‘Oneia’ and a couple of others.

“The Sinclair part of my family is from Scotland,” she said. “My great-great-grandmother, her dad married a Black Seminole from Sumter County. My great-great-grandfather was a medicine man with the Black Seminoles.”

Holloway, 75, also helps guests at Chinsegut Hill Historic Site in Brooksville learn about Black history. She dresses as Elizabeth Carr Washington (“Aunt Lizzie”) who was born a slave in 1848 and died in 1938 a free woman and the owner of a forty-acre farm.

“It’s important to be able to say to the Lord, ‘Look where you brought me from,’” she said.

Raye Joyner: ‘Teaching about the struggle’Retired Citrus County educator Raye Joyner remembers marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and going to jail for the cause of civil rights.

“The younger people today don’t understand the struggle,” she said. “They don’t understand what we went through for them. Today, they can go to school together. When you’re small, when you’re together, you don’t see color, and that’s how it should be.”

However, she said, it’s still important that they learn the history of the freedom they take for granted.

When Joyner first came to Citrus County in 1964 from Jacksonville, she taught at the all-Black George Washington Carver School.

“When we were all-Black, we would teach the kids (our history), but when integration came, we didn’t teach it that much because you could get into trouble from parents,” she said. “They’d say, ‘Why does my child need to know that?’ So, you had to be careful what you said and how you said it because the kids carry it home.”

In 2022, race is still a hot-button issue in public education.

Now retired, Joyner is no longer teaching in the classroom, but she still feels the need to educate.

“Every year we have the Martin Luther King Day at Copeland Park, and we talk to them there and hope they want to know more,” she said.

Bailey Wise: ‘Segregation is an attitude’

In his 94 years, Bailey Wise has experienced racial segregation both in the South and the North.

“I grew up in Georgia, and in the South they’d tell you to your face, ‘I don’t like you,’ and you knew exactly where you stood and what you could do and not do,” he said.

Bailey J. Wise, Jr. will be one of the guest speakers addressing a group this weekend at a roundtable discussion addressing topics relating to the African-American community.

But in New York, where he worked for Con Edison for 41 years from 1948 to 1989, racial discrimination was more subtle.

“Segregation there was an attitude rather than a law,” he said. “I was overlooked for jobs or other people were pushed ahead of me for promotions because of the color of my skin. But I still got what I wanted. I started out as a laborer and ended up in charge of the control room.”

He said his words of advice for the younger generation is to do their best and always be honest.

“The younger generation has opportunities that we didn’t have, like education,” he said. “But they don’t have the respect (for others) that we had. My parents were very strict, and that’s something we don’t have today.”

Donna Lucas: ‘They have lessons to teach’

As a former broadcast journalist with PBS and then the owner of a public relations and marketing company that specialized in the needs of African Americans, Donna Lucas has traveled the world and has listened to the stories of thousands of people.

Special to the Chronicle 

Lucas

After retiring, she moved to Citrus County five years ago for rest and quiet and a little tennis.

Recently, she decided it was time to get involved with the community and became a member of the local Afro-American Club.

In January, she was elected club president.

“I’m relatively new here and I want to learn more about the history of Citrus County and the African American community,” she said. “They have lessons to teach, and people should always feel free to tell their stories.

“I hope to learn about how they evolved and how they’ve grown,” she said. “I want to know about the legacy they want to leave behind. I’m very interested in that.”


Local
School district outlines COVID-19 plan for CDC compliance

In conjunction with the Florida Department of Education’s (FLDOE) required Instructional Continuity Plan (ICP), school districts must create an additional ICP per the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE).

ICPs must include district procedures for maintaining the health and safety of students, educators and staff. However, unlike the FLDOE, the USDOE requires districts to include how they have adopted policies on each of the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) safety guidelines.

School board talks ESSER III, instructional continuity

The Citrus County School District is nearing completion of the Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief (ESSER) III application process. The $34.2 million in ESSER III funding, under the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act, is meant to address issues resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

At Tuesday morning’s Citrus County School Board special meeting and workshop, district Director of Elementary Education Trish Kahler and Director of District Student Services Kit Humbaugh presented the district’s plan, addressing CDC guidelines, to the board.

According to Humbaugh, between Feb. 15 and Feb. 21, seven staff members and 17 students reported a positive COVID-19 test. “The schools are doing great,” she said. “Things are looking bright.”

In their plan, the district has outlined the following procedures in place per CDC guidelines:

Mask wearing

Per Florida Executive Order 21-175, parents have the right to choose whether their child wears a mask. However, Kahler said, “Citrus County Schools supports students and staff choosing to wear a mask.”

In addition, the district strongly recommends mask wearing in clinics and isolation rooms.

Handwashing and respiratory etiquette

Videos, posters and signage are placed around district schools to encourage handwashing and respiratory etiquette. In addition, school nurses are available for classroom lessons and hand sanitizer stations are placed in school common areas for staff and student use.

Physical distancing

The district is encouraging schools to place students in smaller groups within the classroom or common areas such as lunch rooms.

Facility cleaning and ventilation

As needed, schools conduct nightly deep cleaning with CDC-approved agents. Hard surfaces in classrooms are cleaned multiple times per day.

In addition, the district is carrying out HVAC updates and filter changes, as recommended by the CDC.

Contact tracing, isolation and quarantine

“Things have changed quite a bit,” Humbaugh said.

Currently, the district and Citrus Department of Health (DOH-Citrus) are collaborating on contact tracing. However, the district’s online COVID-19 dashboard has not been updated for public viewing since Oct. 28, 2021.

Per CDC guidelines, COVID-19 positive teachers can return to work after five days if they no longer present with a fever or other symptoms. Staff is still allotted 10 days of COVID-19 sick pay with a confirmed positive test.

However, students are governed under FLDOE, according to Humbaugh. Therefore, COVID-19 positive students must stay home for 10 days unless they provide a doctor’s note.

If teachers or students come in close contact COVID-19, both have the option to return to school if they are not presenting symptoms.

COVID-19 testing and vaccinations

Testing is not offered on school campuses, nor is there random temperature monitoring. However, the district and DOH-Citrus work together to distribute information on testing sites to students, parents and staff.

Vaccines and booster shots have been offered to staff and applicable students through DOH-Citrus.

In addition, the district and DOH-Citrus continue to collaborate on the development of COVID-19 procedures.

To view the district’s complete ICP, visit tinyurl.com/t6phzraj and select the Feb. 22 special meeting and workshop.


Local
County commission to get monthly staffing reports for detention facility

After hearing concerns, Citrus County’s board of commissioners will start getting regular updates on whether the county’s privately run jail and prison is being adequately staffed.

Starting with the board’s March 22 meeting, county staff will provide commissioners each month with the Citrus County Detention Facility’s latest staffing report.

County Administrator Randy Oliver said Thursday, Feb. 24, there’s not enough time “to analyze the staffing” from Feb. 1-28 before the March 1 deadline to post the agenda for the commission’s March 8 meeting.

Oliver

After the county began fining CoreCivic for contractually failing to fill the required posts at the detention facility in Lecanto, Commissioner Jeff Kinnard asked Oliver during Tuesday’s board meeting to present those staffing figures to commissioners each month.

“That’s something that should be addressed on a monthly basis at a board meeting as to whether or not they’re in compliance with the contract,” he said. “It’s a straight-forward question, and it needs to be answered publicly.”

Kinnard

CoreCivic spokesman Ryan Gustin told the Chronicle “our senior leaders are in regular communication with Citrus County officials and will be addressing their concerns directly.”

“Both public and private correctional facilities in Florida, and throughout the country, have faced similar staffing challenges,” he said. “Even as we focus on addressing these challenges, we work hard to meet our daily staffing patterns, which are designed to ensure the safety of the facility.”

CoreCivic 

CoreCivic

On Feb. 15, the county levied a $77,500 assessment against CoreCivic’s purchasing requests from the county for failing to improve staffing and organizational issues dating back to March 2021.

This assessment accounted for a daily fine of $2,500 for just throughout the month of January 2022 because the county gave CoreCivic a grace period to address its staff shortage.

“CoreCivic has been trying to work to correct it,” Oliver told commissioners Tuesday, “and, in my opinion, they didn’t make significant enough progress, and that’s why I took the action.”

Bret Touchton told commissioners he quit working for CoreCivic at the detention facility in November 2020 after 21 years because the company’s corporate office in Tennessee ignored his repeated pleas for more and better-treated employees.

“I know what they’re doing, and it’s wrong,” said Touchton, adding he was the facility’s chief of security for three years up until his departure. “It’s time for them to wake up and do their job the way it’s supposed to be done.”

Kinnard thanked Touchton for broaching the subject.

“That sounds like something we definitely need to be paying attention to,” the commissioner said. “It has obviously brought to the surface an issue that’s been going on at our county jail.”

Oliver told commissioners the closure of two state prisons decreased the weekly transfer rate of convicted inmates, creating a backlog at local jails.

“That’s put additional pressure on the system,” he said, “as well as a number of other things.”

Oliver told commissioners questions have also been asked on whether the county’s current contract with CoreCivic mandates a good standard of staffing requirements.

Oliver said Matrix Consulting Group – a California-based firm with “a significant amount corrections experience” – helped develop the agreement, which was approved in July 2020 to expire in September 2030.

Commissioners on Tuesday pulled a vote on whether to approve a separate and updated contract between the county, CoreCivic and the U.S. Virgin Islands to keep housing inmates from the U.S. territory at the county detention facility.

Kinnard said he heard the facility’s population of U.S. Virgin Island inmates was being transferred elsewhere.

“Does that bring them into compliance with what they’re supposed to be doing out there, staffing-wise?” he asked Oliver.

“Until we go in and audit, I don’t know,” Oliver replied. “But yes, they told me they were going to be moving those inmates out for the time being.”

Gustin said “no decision has been made” on the transfer of the U.S. Virgin Island inmates.

Managed since 1995 by CoreCivic – formerly Corrections Corporation of America – the Citrus County Detention Facility can house up to 760 inmates, who are either in local, federal or U.S. Virgin Island custody. U.S. Virgin Island inmates are serving sentences longer than a year.

Oliver told commissioners in a Feb. 18 email CoreCivic “brought in a number of temporary/potentially permanent corrections officers, already certified,” to alleviate staffing issues.

CoreCivic informed Oliver then it had 94 percent of the detention facility staffed.

Touchton cautioned commissioners about believing CoreCivic was staffing the facility with qualified employees.

“They’re playing you, and they’re not doing the right thing. ... It’s Band-Aids and duct tape,” he said. “They should not be allowed to house additional inmates in that facility until they prove they have a full staff of certified correctional officers.”

Oliver said a CoreCivic executive informed him someone with correctional experience from outside the state can receive reciprocity from Florida to practice their profession in the state.

Oliver told the Chronicle Thursday the county relies on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) to approve a corrections officer and their certifications before they “can work in a safety-sensitive position.”

The FDLE had yet to respond to a Chronicle reporter’s request for comment.

According to Oliver and the county’s contract with CoreCivic, not all positions at the county detention facility require a certified corrections officer.

“It is up to the contractor (CoreCivic),” Oliver said, “to hire qualified and professional employees that can fulfill the terms of the contract.”


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