State of the City

Written by Keith Chartrand | Photography by Chris Redd, Chief Photographer

Each January, Ocala Magazine features State of the City, editorial dedicated to reviewing what has gone on in Ocala during the previous year and what things we can expect in the new year.

Last year we discussed the potential for a new parking garage which has since further developed and shifted timeframes. We touched on new housing developments in the way of 18 downtown condo units that we’ve watched take shape in 2015. The Reilly Arts Center was just a complex plan and a vacant city auditorium last January, but has since been reinvented as the RAC, opening its doors in late 2015, bringing new life and culture to the Tuscawilla Park area.

So much progress has been made in 2015 and this new year brings about even more exciting changes for our community, tourism and economic growth. From local athletes making waves across the nation to changes in local government, here is look back and glimpse into what lies ahead for Ocala and Marion County.

Reilly Arts Center

During an economic and cultural awakening, the Ocala Symphony Orchestra, under the leadership of Maestro Matthew Wardell, took the reins and brought a dream of having a performing arts center to life. The Reilly Arts Center (RAC) has already transformed the climate of Ocala’s historic Tuscawilla Park. What began as a messy renovation of Ocala’s historic City Auditorium has come to life, reincarnated, as a hub for cultural arts.

The RAC is the bridge that connects the historic downtown square, Tuscawilla Park and the North Magnolia Business District. It is an anchor for creativity, development and investment in our community.

Moving well beyond orchestral performances, the RAC has collaborated with other companies and organizations hosting comedy shows, ballet performances, holiday plays, concerts and more. The RAC is a place where vision can flow from thought to action and inspire our community.

“The OSO believes so much in this community,” says Matthew Wardell. “We believe in all of our organizations – they just needed a home – a place where art can live.” That is exactly what the RAC has provided these many organizations.

The RAC project was about preserving the unique history of Ocala – a building that literally helped our community crawl out of the depression when it was built in 1936 and sustained us through the 40’s and 50’s with the development of rock ‘n’ roll. The building acted as a home for community meetings during the civil rights debates of the 60’s and held memories in the 70’s and beyond for prom-goers and graduates. Today, finally, this special space is reinvigorated, preserving Ocala’s past and enrich its future.

The birth of the RAC was made possible through the generosity and ideals of community-minded businessmen and women, equine and entertainment industry leaders and philanthropists, as well as a collection of other dignitaries and forerunners in the arts community.

The first two months of 2016 brings Ocala a diverse lineup of entertainment to include Dance Alive National Ballet and Royal Ballet Cinema Simulcast performances, an opera featuring the work of Mozart, a play about Winston Churchill and a concert by two-time Grammy winner country singer Travis Tritt.

The 700-seat Reilly Arts Center is Ocala’s new home for arts and entertainment, as well as, business and community meetings, social events, weddings and more. The Reilly brings a cultural component that’s been missing in Ocala. And anyone who has already graced the exquisite new building will agree.

Downtown Facelift

When the downtown square’s facelift was completed in October it started what will be a very busy 2016 for many areas in close proximity. Painting the square’s lamp posts and adding new lights are quite simple compared to building a new hotel and parking garage. The Ocala City Council agreed to negotiate with developer Danny Gaekwad to build a two building complex – one for a six story hotel and one for a two story building that would incorporate retail shops with high-end townhouses. The Ocala City Council has given Gaekwad a three-year window to complete the project. The parking garage is an added amenity.

While the architectural design of the hotel is still being debated, the downtown Alarion Bank will be modernizing their aging exterior with hopes of attracting businesses to their prime location at the square.

Veterans Resource Center

Ed Whitlock, a U.S. military veteran, had so many obstacles against him. He was living in his car, had little food and didn’t have a job. Marion County Veteran Helping Veterans, a 510c3 not-for-profit organization, specializes in helping the over 45,000 county veterans like Whitlock. “They assisted me with counseling, they gave me food, they assisted me with shelter,” Whitlock said. “I was able to get an apartment and save money. Because of all the help, I was able to get on my feet.”

Thanks to a collaborative effort from city, county and national entities, veterans like Whitlock will have a much easier time getting the services and support they need. Come mid-2016, a Veterans Resource Center will open its doors on East Silver Springs Boulevard in Ocala putting Vets Helping Vets, the Marion County Veterans Service Office, and a satellite office of the VA Ocala Vet Center all under one roof.

For a veteran who lives in Belleview and has no transportation, getting from one office to another can be both hard to manage and time consuming. “Our request [was] to develop a Veterans Resource Center,” said Hank Whittier, executive director of Veterans Helping Veterans. “We are trying to create a model for veterans services. No one else [in the state] has this capability. No one else is doing this. This will eliminate a lot of traveling around. We hope that Vets Helping Vets will be open extended hours, six or seven days a week.”

Construction and remodeling of approximately 14,000 square feet of the old AMF Bowling Center will commence in early 2016. With the assistance of Commissioner Stan McClain, funding the facility will come from two sources. The county sold the Blockers Furniture building it owns in November. In that Vets Helping Vets is a non-profit, block grant dollars from the federal government will also offset cost of the renovations.

Commission Seats Up For Grabs

Come November 2016, regardless of the outcome, there will be at least one new commissioner on the Marion County Commissioners Board. With Commissioner Stan McClain announcing his run for the State House of Representatives, District 3 will have new representation. Three hats have been thrown in the ring to replace McClain who was on the board since 2004. Those names include Danielle Doty, Anthony James and Evelio Silvera.

Commission seats for District 1 and District 5 will also be up for election come August, both of which have an incumbent looking to keep his seat. David Moore will be challenged by James Owen, John Townsend and Thomas Wilder. Five candidates including Michelle Stone, wife of former commissioner and current State Representative Charlie Stone, will challenge incumbent Earl Arnett for the District 5 seat. Others running for Arnett’s seat include Ken Davidson, Richard Hancock, Russell Matzinger and Kay Maynard.

Primaries are dated for August 30th with the general election taking place on November 8th.

Five Flags Over Florida Display

There is no timeline in place but the Five Flags over Florida display at the Marion County McPherson Government Complex will be moved some time in 2016. More important, the Third National Confederate Flag will be replaced with the First Confederate National Flag.

“Other communities that have presented historical displays have used the first flag,” Commissioner Stan McClain said during the October 6th commission meeting. “In line with history, the third flag was not adopted until way late into the Civil War. Plus there are groups that have co-oped the third flag and have given it a different connotation.”

The display will be in close proximity to the Marion County Museum of History and Archaeology. It will share the same look as the Fallen Officer Memorial with brick walls, granite face and possible artifacts to tell Florida’s full history starting with the first Native Americans in Ocala.

During the October 6th meeting, Commissioner David Moore was emphatic about taking down the Third National Confederate Flag, the flag that has continued to fly at the government complex since 1992.

“We have to teach the history of Florida and… remove anything that has to do with racism,” Moore said. “We are a community that loves everybody and are inclusive to all. We don’t want something that will be offensive. There needs to be a balancing act.” One statement Moore learned in school stuck with him – “If you don’t teach history you’ll repeat it.” Moore believes we have to teach the history of Florida so we don’t wind up making the mistakes of our past. “No group should be alienated. We are all created equal.”

Marion County Sheriff’s Office

Brad King, the State Attorney for the Fifth District Court in Ocala, issued a memo to the Marion County Sheriff’s Office on November 13th. The writing between the lines of King’s note says MCSO deputies and high ranking officials need to conduct themselves better. “Training programs for deputies involved in the execution of warrants (needs to be reviewed) to make sure they understand the requirements for such execution and the proper documentation of the events surrounding the execution of warrants.”

The last 12 months for the Marion County Sheriff’s Office has been a public relations nightmare. Sheriff Chris Blair can only hope 2016 is a lot smoother. Five deputies – James Amidei, Adam Crawford, Trevor Fitzgerald, Cody Hoppel and Jesse Terrell – were either suspended or terminated for their role in the August 7th arrest of Derrick Price. Video showed unreasonable use of force by the five on Price who was being sought as part of a drug investigation. Taken to U.S. Attorney’s Office in Ocala, a felony conviction would mean 10 years prison time.

“The actions I viewed on the video were egregious and not in keeping with standards by which we operate at the Marion County Sheriff’s Office,” Sheriff Chris Blair said. “Anytime there are actions that compromise the integrity of the badge, it will be dealt with swiftly and vigorously.”

In October deputies Ed Tillis and Joe Tussey were suspended because their written statements during the execution of a warrant on July 17 didn’t match the video on their body cameras. Criminal charges against the two deputies were dropped. Sergeant Jeremie Nix was demoted to corporal and thrown off the K-9 and Traffic/Interdiction Unit in December. Nix lied about how a drug investigation was handled. Nix’s punishment included mandatory attendance in ethics training sessions, temporary suspension without pay and transfer to patrol duty.

Despite a tough year, Sheriff Chris Blair ressures this community by releasing this statement to Ocala Magazine:

“Throughout my tenure as Sheriff of the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, transparency with our community is something I have always believed to be of paramount importance. Through monthly Town Hall meetings, Citizen’s Academies and social media, we make every effort to be available to the citizens we serve to ensure open lines of communication between our agency and our citizens. In addition to the many positives we have shared – including reducing crime to its lowest crime rate in Marion County history – we have also been forthcoming with personnel issues and, when our employees have acted improperly, we have addressed them swiftly, professionally and openly.

The goal of any Sheriff’s Office is to maintain the community’s trust which comes from an honest relationship with our citizens. I can promise you this, as your Sheriff I will not accept unprofessional or dishonest behavior from those who wear our uniform and bear a star on their chest. It is of the utmost importance to us that we maintain the integrity of what the Sheriff’s Star stands for – being a shield, a first line of protection for those who need our help. Our Sheriff’s Office has more than 700 employees that are dedicated to this cause. I would ask this of our citizens; Let not the actions of a few define the actions of all.

Our employees are passionate about what they do and take pride in their commitment to protect others from those who wish to harm others. It is our mission to humbly continue to fight the good fight of keeping our citizens safe and not be distracted by other pessimistic forces around us. The positive things at our Sheriff’s Office are many times unspoken publicly but are rarely unnoticed by our citizens. In today’s day and age, our deputies need even more positive reinforcement than ever.

We appreciate the relationship with our community and thank you for your continued support, even when we – and the nation’s law enforcement in general – have difficult times. I am honored to serve alongside the great men and women at the Marion County Sheriff’s Office. These men and women are dedicated to making Marion County a safer and better place to live, work and play. We will continue to serve you with honor and protect you with pride as we move forward into a new year.”

Business & Employment Growth

If Moody’s, the 107-year old numbers-crunching investor services company, publishes any type of economic report, it is instantly validated because of its reputation. In July, Moody’s Analytics ranked Ocala as the fifth best city in the country for future job growth. The projected annual gain is 3.9% through 2017. According to the report, Ocala is one of six Florida cities expected to lead the way in job growth, and Naples being projected with the highest gain at 4.6%.

“Areas like Naples are adding jobs at a faster rate because of the population growth among baby boomers,” Moody’s Analytics economist Kwame Donaldson told Forbes Magazine. “These retirees are like permanent tourists. You get all of the benefits of migration without many of the costs like competition for wages or strains on the justice and education systems.”

Moody’s projected numbers for Ocala are backed by what the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity reported. In January, Ocala was the state metro leader in job growth at 5.5%, topping the state’s rate of 3.7%. In a year’s span the area’s non-farm employment increased by 5,100 jobs.

The jobs added in were trade, transportation and utilities (+1,400 jobs for a 6.5% growth rate), leisure and hospitality (+800 jobs for a 7.6% growth rate), professional and business services (+700 jobs for a 7.6% growth rate), manufacturing (+400 jobs for a 5.7% growth rate) and mining, logging and construction (+100 jobs for a 1.6% growth rate).

Brett Barnes and William Parsons, the Director and Assistant Director of Business Attraction for the Chamber and Economic Partnership, have been hard at work visiting other states and establishing leads to sell the Ocala area to companies looking to establish themselves or relocate.

Creative Foam Medical Systems was just one of several businesses that made the leap to Ocala in 2015. Ocala was chosen for CFMS, a subsidiary of Creative Foam Corporation, in part because of location but also in part because of the effectiveness of the Chamber and Economic Partnership.

“The Ocala community…has supported us from the concept stage of this development and continues to support us through assistance in helping us locate the right personnel,” said Kent Lutian, VP-General Manager, Creative Foam Medical Systems. “We look forward to prospering for many years within the Ocala community. Creative Foam Corporation is deeply committed to the Ocala area and is eager to play its part by being a responsible and supportive corporate citizen.”

eResources, a full-service technology and digital consulting firm, picked up and moved from Washington D.C. to 233 SW Third Street in Ocala. eResources CEO Dusty Gullerson said it was Ocala’s infrastructure, strategic location and the access to resources and talent is why the company picked Ocala.

Dimension Works, the concept of local Marion County residents Jeff and Mindy Beegle, came to life in July. The 3D printing company offers a wide array of applications to help other businesses speed-up their innovation process. By producing physical objects from digital models with successively layering of materials one on top of the other, businesses can see objects in a whole new light.

Some other business additions to Ocala include:

A third Aldi supermarket will began construction at the intersection of SR 200 and SW 90th Street along the retirement row corridor on the city’s west side.

Approximately 40 jobs will be available thanks to the return of Hooters in 2016, to be located on SW 27th Avenue between Best Buy and Easy Street Family Fun Center. The sports bar known for the wings and waitresses will open in May.

Ford Lincoln of Ocala is adding two additional facilities to their North Pine Street location. A maintenance center and a new showroom should be completed by May.

County Administration

Marion County will have a new county administrator in 2016. Interim county administrator Bill Kauffman submitted his letter of resignation back on July 17 after the Ocala and Marion County Commissioners made international news.

On June 24th Kauffman ordered the Confederate flag at the Marion County’s McPherson Government Complex to be taken down days after nine African-Americans were killed in Charleston by a man donning a Confederate flag. On July 7th all five Marion County Commissioners voted unanimously to have the flag put back up which sparked a massive debate.

Assistant County Administrator and County Engineer Mounir Bouyounes took over for Kauffman on August 15th, also on an interim basis. Using the recruiting firm, GovHR USA, the county worked off a list of over 50 recommended candidates from 18 states, 21 of which came from Florida. The initial 54 candidates were then weeded down to 12.

At the time of publication, the commissioners had narrowed their choices down to four finalists for a permanent replacement – James Arkens from California, Burgess Hanson of Deerfield Beach, Albert Penska Jr. of Pennsylvania and Christopher Rose of Miami.

Arkens was the Chief Administrative Officer and Director of Human Resources of Sutter County. According to The Appeal Democrat in Marysville, California, the Sutter County Board of Supervisors chose not to renew Arkens’ contract on September 29th. The next day he took a leave of absence.

“The Board of Supervisors…is making no other statement at this time about the decision,” county spokesman Chuck Smith said in an emailed statement to the Appeal Democrat.”

Hanson, in his sixth year as the City Manager, used his position as a finalist to sweeten his own pot. According to a Sun Sentinel Newspaper report on December 9th, the City of Deerfield offered Hanson, a horse lover, a $19,000 annual raise to keep him onboard, to which he accepted.

Penska has been the Adams’ County City Manager since September of 2010. His 40-year career has mostly been in the public section as a Deputy Register of Wills, County Controller, State Supervisor of Invest Pennsylvania as well as Township Manager.

Whoever is chosen, the Marion County Commissioners need the County Administrator to tackle three key job responsibilities – developing a long-term financial plan using alternative revenue sources for County services, a strategic plan for growth, development and sustainability and engage in economic development initiatives with the Ocala/Marion County Chamber and Economic Partnership.

Coates Golf Championship & HITS Ocala Winter Circuit

From February 1st through the 6th, the best female golfers in the world will compete for the second year at Golden Ocala Golf and Equestrian Club. The Coates Golf Championship presented by R&L Carriers will be the second tour stop for the 2016 LPGA season. Last year’s inaugural tournament vaulted the three Ocala businesses – Coates Golf, R&L Carriers and Golden Ocala -into the national spotlight while bringing 80,000 spectators to the course and $18.4 million into the community. Ocala Magazine named it the hottest ticket in town for 2015.

Players commented on the size of the galleries and how welcome they felt within the community. The goal is to continue exceeding the community’s, players’ and our sponsors’ expectations,” said Mollie Coates, Coates Golf Founder and President.

For the 15th consecutive year the triple crown of horse show jumping will taking place in Ocala. The 10-week long HITS Ocala Winter Circuit takes Ocala by storm from January 19th to March 27th, showcasing the best riders from around the world at Post Time Farm for elite competition. The Furusiyya FEI Nations Cup, USHJA International Hunter Derby, Sullivan GMC Truck Grand Prix and the Great American $1 Million Grand Prix highlight the 10-week schedule.

“HITS Ocala far exceeded all expectations and with months of preparation already underway, we plan to do the same in 2016,” said HITS President and CEO Tom Struzzieri. “With loyal support from Marion County and the City of Ocala, HITS will welcome show jumping’s biggest players to the Horse Capital of the World to exemplify our continued commitment to growing the sport for exhibitors and spectators alike.”

Athletics

During the latter part of 2015 Ocala natives Brittany Bowe and Joey Mantia proved there are reasons to get excited about olympic sports.

Through the International Skating Union’s Speed Skating World Cup’s first four events, Bowe and Mantia placed atop the standings in two distances. What began as inline skating lessons at Skate Mania, under the leadership of Coach Renee Hildebrand, the two now 20-something year-olds proved they are among the world’s elite in ice speed skating. Bowe sits at first place in the women’s 1000 meters standings and second in the 1500. Mantia is at first place in the men’s 1500 meters. What has everyone buzzing are the times both Ocalans have posted. Bowe recorded not one but two world record times.

Bowe told the Associated Press, “It’s you versus the clock. Nobody’s getting in your way and whoever is the fastest is going to win.”

In the first three months of 2016, Bowe and Mantia will be in Belarus, Norway, Russia, South Korea, Germany and the Netherlands to compete in the first stages of the World Cup.

Marion County Fire Department

The upcoming year for the Marion County Fire Department will be filled with debate. After Deputy Fire Chief Paul Nevels was selected as the Marion County Fire Chief in July, he inherited a $3 million deficit. The actions taken by the County Commissioners in the upcoming year will determine how the fire rescue division operates within the county. The Professional Firefighters of Marion County Union is looking for more money. The commissioners offered a whopping $3.5 million raise but the union rejected it because it doesn’t provide long-term growth and security.

New Airport Terminal

The Ocala International Airport (OIA) is getting a new aviation terminal thanks to a multi-million dollar grant that will help complete this project. City council accepted the first half of a $2-million grant, leaving the city of Ocala to match that in an effort to build a 25-thousand square foot terminal.

In response to a booming industry, flight instructor Martin Guerra believes this comes at the perfect time. Martin told the Ocala Star Banner, “The aviation industry for us, in the U.S. and internationally is growing.”

OIA hosts students from all over the globe and this new terminal will provide the accommodations necessary to complete international training. More space means the ability to host more students.

Airport Director Matt Grow is excited over this project as it will also bring so much national and international recognition to Ocala. It has taken Grow ten years to get the funding for this project. He told the Ocala Star Banner, “This terminal will be the centerpiece – [a visitor’s] first impression of Ocala and we want to make sure it is a fantastic first impression.”

This will help grow local business, provide aviation needs and make visiting Ocala easier and more accommodating. Ocala Aviation will move to the current hangar occupied by Sheltair, the airport’s fixed base operator. May 2016 will yield terminal design plans with construction slated for fall.

Munroe

For more than a year, the leadership team, members of the medical staff and board of trustees have met regularly to develop a facility master plan for Munroe Regional Medical Center. The team’s responsibility was significant – identify how best to use in excess of $100 million in capital dollars to enhance the patient experience and support employees, physicians and other hospital’s caregivers in their work to provide quality, personalized care.

“We have an exciting opportunity to invest in our facilities and equipment to continue to provide Marion County and our surrounding communities with quality medical services,” said Kevin McDonald, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Munroe Regional Medical Center. “Thanks to the infusion of capital made possible through our affiliation with CHS, Munroe can advance our key services by updating our equipment and facilities to support today’s technologies and practices.”

In three phases between now and the end of 2018, the hospital plans to consolidate imaging services, update and expand the obstetrics unit, expand and improve the emergency department and transition many inpatient beds to private rooms. The facility master plan builds upon more than $12 million in capital investments made since April 2014 for new equipment and technologies.

The facility Master plan to fulfill the lease commitments was approved by the Marion County Hospital District at their meeting in June. The plan is also subject to review and approval by the Florida Agency for Healthcare Administration.

Phase One: Imaging Services

More than 160,000 imaging studies were performed at Munroe Regional Medical Center in 2014, making imaging one of the busiest services at the hospital. The facility master plan calls for a facility renovation that will consolidate all imaging services into one centralized, accessible area.

The hospital’s imaging services, including nuclear medicine, computerized tomography (CT), lithotripsy, magnetic resonance angiography (MRA) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), have grown over many years and are currently housed in a number of areas throughout and adjacent to the hospital. An important part of the renovation will be a dedicated space to permanently house the MRI equipment within the hospital.

Phase Two: Mothers and Infants

The second phase outlines plans to strengthen obstetric services to support mothers and their newborns as they come into the world. On average, the hospital delivers six or more babies each day. Plans include creating a new Level II neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for infants born at more than 32 weeks of gestation, allowing more families to remain close to home rather than traveling for care. Renovations will also enhance the OB Observation services.The plans will build upon the relocation of Midwives of Ocala the hospital facilities this past year to improve access for patients and offer more convenient coverage of OB by midwives.

Phase Three: ED and Patient Tower

Visits to Munroe Regional Medical Center’s ED have steadily grown over the past four years, from more than 97,000 in 2011 to more than 109,000 in 2014, and the third phase of the plan is intended to enhance the facility to improve efficiency and patient access. Also in the plan is addition of a patient tower with 90 private patient rooms. The new structure will have improved visibility, a more functional ambulance entrance and an adjacent covered parking area for patient access.

Work to Date

Many new resources for service, quality and patient safety have been put in place since April 2014. More than 200 new patient beds and mattresses were purchased and installed throughout the hospital to enhance patient comfort and safety. Physician recruitment expertise has supported the successful recruitment of new physicians to the Ocala community. Establishment of a pediatric hospitalist program allows the community’s pediatric patients and families to be cared for close to home. The hospital has also invested in staff as employees received merit increases and market salary adjustments for the first time in several years.

The hospital will pursue the needed approvals with a goal of beginning construction by the end of this year. Phase One is projected to be completed by the end of 2016. Patient care will continue without interruption throughout construction.

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