April 20, 2014

Community Portrait

Ocala & Marion County

More than just gathering data, we're trying to capture elements that make each community distinctive.

Strengths & Weaknesses

Strengths

Central logistics: Interstate 75 and U.S. 27, State Road 40 and U.S. 441/301 all run through Ocala. The city and county are just north of the crossroads of Interstate 75 and Florida’s Turnpike and straddle a primary CSX rail line. It’s an hour and a half drive to either Tampa or Orlando and their international airports.

Natural amenities: Marion’s well-manicured horse farms, with their expansive pastures and centuries-old oaks, make for some of the most stunning natural beauty in Florida’s interior. The county is also home to several of the state’s last great wild places, including the Ocala National Forest and a key Florida watershed, the Ocklawaha River Watershed, fed by the city’s famous Silver River and Silver Springs. The Silver Springs zoological park is among the state’s most venerable tourist attractions.

Ocala horse farm
Ocala is known for its well-manicured horse farms. [Photo: Ocala-Marion County, FL VBC]

Arts: The county is home to the Appleton Museum, the Ocala Civic Theater and the Fort King National Historic Landmark. The Ocala Symphony Orchestra has played a four-concert season — along with special free concerts —?since 1976.

Environmental ethic: Parts of the county have been ravaged by suburban-type sprawl, but in recent years local leaders have increasingly grasped the value of Marion’s natural treasures and worked hard to protect them. Marion is home to three first-magnitude springs, including Silver Springs, the largest inland spring in the state, gushing an average 516 million gallons of water a day. Spring flow remains relatively high compared to Florida’s other water supplies, and leaders are trying to keep it that way. County commissioners, for example, have passed several progressive springs protection measures in recent years, including a fertilizer ordinance and springs overlay zones in the comp plan.

Historic downtown: Ocala has a brick-lined downtown with a leafy public park and numerous buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. The Brick City Center for the Arts, coffee shops and several restaurants keep downtown’s blocks busy at night. Nearby residential neighborhoods feature well-maintained Victorian-style homes. Still, too few people live downtown to bring round-the-clock vibrance. City officials are working on an ambitious redevelopment effort that aims to spark residential development in the next few years.

Higher education and training: The public schools include the innovative Marion Technical Institute that trains high school students in specific careers, including industrial engineering and information technology. Ocala has three college campuses: College of Central Florida, Webster University and Rasmussen College. The University of Florida is a 40-minute drive north on U.S. 441.

Healthcare: The large retiree population draws considerable specialization, including cardiac and stroke care. Munroe Regional Medical Center is the longtime community hospital with 421 beds. Ocala Health System owns the 200-bed Ocala Regional Medical Center and 70-bed West Marion Community Hospital.

Weaknesses

Polarization: Ocala has more than its fair share of “anti-everything” voters, in part because of the massive adult communities — some of the largest in the nation — that stretch out over parts of the outlying county. These politically powerful voting blocs have historically fought any taxes and any restrictions, from lawn-irrigation rules to growth-management initiatives.

Economic base: Housing, ultimately, doesn’t provide economic sustenance. The county needs a wider range of industries and businesses.

K-12 education: The school district gets a “B” grade from the state. The graduation rate is 75%, with fewer than two-thirds of students scoring at or above grade level in reading and two-thirds scoring at or above grade level in math. Marion County schools have a good reputation for kids who are college-bound, less so for others. None of the county’s public high schools received an “A” in the Florida Department of Education’s school rankings last year.

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