Marion commissioners tout successes, say future looks bright during ‘State of County’ address

Marion County Commission Chairman Kathy Bryant confidently took the stage earlier this week as the Black Eyed Peas belted out “Tonight’s Gonna be a Good Night” from their hit song “I Gotta Feeling.”

Judging by the things Bryant and her fellow commissioners told audience members at the Reilly Arts Center and those watching live on Facebook, it’s going to be much more than just a “good night” for Marion County in the days and months to come.

In 2014, FedEx announced that it was building a distribution center in the Ocala/Marion County Commerce Park. It included a $150 million capital investment and more than 350 jobs to start.

Monday’s gathering, titled “State of the County,” gave commissioners the chance to update their constituents on a variety of happenings. Bryant, who played host but frequently turned the stage over to her colleagues throughout the 45-minute presentation, kicked things off by touting the formation of the Ocala/Marion County Chamber and Economic Partnership, formed in 2011 when the economic outlook wasn’t bright.

“It was at that time we knew we had to do something different, as the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” she said.

Chewy.com built a distribution center at the Ocala/Marion County Commerce Park. The online company has seen significant growth since it first opened in 2011 and now offers about 30,000 items for dogs and cats.

Bryant also boasted about a partnership between Marion County, the city of Ocala and the private sector that created the Ocala/Marion County Commerce Park.

“It wasn’t long before FedEx was knocking on our door,” she said, adding that AutoZone and Chewy.com soon followed. “Our work in economic development has led to the creation of over 5,600 new jobs and generated a half a billion dollars.”

AutoZone, which operates more than 5,000 stores in the United States, Mexico and Brazil, built a distribution center in the Ocala/Marion County Commerce Park.

District 4 Commissioner Carl Zalak III said a new Florida Commerce Park, located on 900 acres on County Road 484 near Marion Oaks, will provide even more opportunities for businesses interested in coming to Marion County.

“We have the advantage of location and opportunity and more than 21 million people that need to be served in Florida,” he said.

The World Equestrian Center encompasses 3,400 acres that will include 2,399 mixed housing properties and 200 spaces for recreational vehicles. The facility will primarily host equestrian-related events, but also will showcase sporting events and competitions such as dog, cat and car shows.

District 5 Commissioner Michelle Stone talked about the World Equestrian Center, a venue designed to bring in horse enthusiasts from across the country that’s scheduled to open next year. Stone said it will include:

  • 1,500 permanent stalls,
  • four indoor air-conditioned arenas,
  • 17 outdoor arenas,
  • A three-acre outdoor stadium,
  • 18,000 square feet of retail space,
  • A 100-seat chapel,
  • 150,000-square-foot outdoor grass sports field, and
  • 243 rooms in a five-star hotel.

“This definitely is going to be a world-class destination,” she said of the project, which will sit on 3,400 acres and include 2,399 mixed housing properties and 200 spaces for recreational vehicles. “The facility is going to primarily host equestrian-related events, but it’s also planning to market and host sports events and competitions such as dog, cat and car shows.”

Residents and visitors in Marion County have access to a variety of world-class trails.

Stone said the plan also calls for a large-scale convention center on the property.

“A convention center would attract thousands of visitors from all around Florida and the country,” she said. “Their money would be spent in our restaurants, hotels, attractions and much more.”

Along those same lines, Bryant touted the fact that two million people visit Marion County every year.

“Visitors love what we have to offer and they keep coming back for more,” she said. “They are key to our community, as they represent over $1 billion in annual economic impact, which equates to a $500 savings on your property taxes.”

Marion County funded more than $175,000 in improvements to the Fort King National Heritage site through its bed tax.

Commissioner David Moore, who represents District 1, agreed. He pointed out that the county has many miles of scenic trails and said improvements being made at the Fort King National Heritage site will draw even more visitors in the years to come.

“The walls are up and ultimately Fort King will be a tourism driver,” he said.

Marion County Fire Rescue
Three new fire engines and six new ambulance/rescue vehicles have been funded by sales tax money.

Bryant said another huge plus is the penny sales tax approved by voters in 2016 for public safety and transportation needs. She said the $44 million raised since March 2017 has paid for many things, including:

  • Improvements to several county roads,
  • Six ambulance/rescue units for Marion County Fire Rescue,
  • Three brush/grass trucks for fighting fires in wooded areas,
  • Five fire engines,
  • A tanker truck,
  • Staff and other emergency vehicles,
  • Self-contained breathing apparatus,
  • 55 Toughbook laptop computers,
  • Construction of a new fire station,
  • 69 new patrol cars for the sheriff’s office,
  • Vehicles for evidence technicians and civil process staff,
  • 100 ballistic and SWAT vests,
  • Helicopter for the sheriff’s office, and
  • 2,000 public safety radios.
The penny sales tax funded a new helicopter for the Marion County Sheriff’s Office to replace one that was destroyed in a crash in May 2017 while helping to battle a brush fire.

District 3 Commissioner Jeff Gold, who has been involved with Marion County Fire Rescue for 35 years as either a volunteer or paid firefighter, said another success is the recent pay increase commissioners approved for firefighter/paramedics.

“Over the years, we’ve been a training ground for other departments,” he said. “But our recruitment is starting to come back. We’re retaining those professionals that are going to save lives – your life, my life, the families around us.”

The sheriff’s office has purchased 100 ballistic and SWAT vests with penny sales tax money.

Finally, Bryant said she was proud to announce that commissioners have been working with state legislators to start the process of bringing a veterans nursing home to the county. And she said a replacement outpatient facility for veterans in Ocala also will become a reality.

“Marion County’s veteran population is more than 45,000 strong, about one in every seven residents,” she said. “Our central location provides a unique ability to directly impact more than 650,000 veterans within a service area of less than 75 miles. And nearly 300,000 of these veterans are over the age of 65.”

The Marion County Sheriff’s Office has received 69 new patrol vehicles that were paid for by penny sales tax money.