Ken Ford, director of the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, likes Ocala’s proxmity to the state’s major universities. [Photo: Ray Stanyard]
Ocala’s revitalized downtown seems to have a split personality: Starbucks draws a crowd, the town square is inviting and patrons browse the elegant gallery at Brick City Center for the Arts. At the same time, however, cars speed by on State Road 40, which slices downtown in half. A large parking lot that was supposed to be a trendy mixed-use town center is an abandoned heap of rubble.
Enter the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition. The Pensacola-based institute, which specializes in artificial intelligence and robotics, has purchased the former public library building at SR 40 and Osceola Avenue for a branch research lab expected to open late this year. Fifteen to 20 high-paid scientists will work there. The institute’s influence on historic Pensacola gives Ocala officials reason to believe that IHMC is just what they need to finish their revitalization effort.
“This is precisely the kind of business any community would love to have because it will spark change,” says Marion County Commissioner Stan McClain, who helped land the deal, which was two years in the making. “It really raises the bar for Marion County.”
Institute Director Ken Ford, the only Floridian on the National Science Board, discovered what he calls Ocala’s promising downtown en route to Bike Week on his Ducati motorcycle. Institute officials began considering Ocala for a branch because of its proximity to partner universities in Orlando, Tampa, Melbourne and Gainesville. They also cite the area’s quality of life that could help lure some of the country’s top scientists.
“The folks we hire tend to be people who can live anywhere,” says IHMC Deputy Director Timothy W. Wright, who’s overseeing the renovation of the old library. “They spend a lot of time thinking deep thoughts and working on computers, and then they may want to escape to the coasts or to the national forest.” Maybe even to downtown.
The Institute for Human and Machine Cognition will use the old library building as a branch lab.