A downtown that Gainesville envies

Anyone who’s lived in North Florida anytime at all knows that Ocala and Gainesville will never be known as twin cities like, say, Tampa-St. Pete or Minneapolis-St. Paul.

No, the Horse Capital of the World and the University City have always had an underlying dislike for one another — probably with good reason. The two communities couldn’t be any more different.

Consider …

Ocala is red, Gainesville is blue.

The median age in Ocala is 38; in Gainesville it’s 26.

Ocala has a diversified economy driven by manufacturing, horses, health care and logistics. Gainesville is a company town that revolves wholly around the University of Florida.

Ocala has huge gated communities catering to retirees. Gainesville has huge apartment complexes catering to students.

Ocala has more people, more wealth and more Walmarts. Gainesville has more college degrees, more sports and cultural events and more taxes.

In short, Ocala and Gainesville couldn’t be more different than horses and Gators.

Over the years, however, Ocalans have come to believe Gainesvillians look down their noses at their older, richer, more conservative neighbors to the south. There is some evidence to back that up.

When Gainesville set out to build a new airport back in the 1970’s, Ocala’s leaders, foreseeing a coming population boom, pleaded that it be built somewhere between the two growing cities. Gainesville leaders snubbed the idea and built the airport north of their city, a mistake that led to decades of economic struggles that continue today.

Former Ocala mayor Gerald Ergle remembers when Ocala was named an All-American City back in 1996 that a Gainesville columnist acknowledged the lofty designation by writing “the mobile homes are rocking in Marion County tonight.” Ergle, like the rest of Ocala, was unamused.

So here we are in 2020. Ocala is booming, the new darling of the logistics industry. Gainesville is also booming, thanks to its ever-burgeoning big brother UF.

But here’s the thing. A contingent of Gainesville civic leaders came to town this week for a looksee at our downtown. They wanted to know how Ocala has managed to create a hopping, expanding downtown that has a growing number of restaurants, boutiques, bars and other businesses , not to mention a brand new hotel on the verge of opening, while their downtown has become a daytime ghost town that only draws crowds when students fill the bars at night.

One member of the group is an old friend and newspaper colleague, Ron Cunningham. He brought former Gainesville city commissioner Warren Nielsen and Bob Ackerman, a member of that city’s Plan Board, to the Brick City.

The trio was impressed with the vibrancy, the diversity and the continuing expansion of Ocala’s downtown – and it was lunchtime! Yes, these Gainesville residents had nice things to say about our fair city.

So, how’d you do it? they asked.

Well, it all started with a plan. In 2004, the Ocala City Council approved a Downtown Master Plan that called for, among other things, new residential units, more retail establishments, a parking garage and increased office space, as well as finding uses for the old library, the old Marion Theatre and what was known as “the Sprint site.” The goal was to turn the downtown into a “destination” that would draw people and their dollars from 75 miles around

So, how’d it work out? Well, after a pause for the Great Recession, things started happening in 2014. More restaurants and bars opened, the Sprint site became condos, a hotel with restaurants and shops got under way, a 400-space parking garage was built, the old library became home to the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, the Marion Theatre has been renovated and in steady use and the old Memorial Auditorium in Tuscawilla Park became the Reilly Cultural Arts Center.

What is really remarkable – besides the fact a government plan actually came to fruition – is that the City Council that approved the Downtown Master Plan is now long gone, having been replaced by another council and another council, yet they have stuck to the plan faithfully.

In a 2018 assessment of the downtown plan and its success, city planners wrote:

“In addition to greatly enhancing the quality of life for its residents, these progressive and highly competitive steps have had a profound effect on making Downtown Ocala a ‘destination’ location. The city now offers robust, regular entertainment, numerous cultural, retail and restaurant offerings that now consistently attract a discretionary spending draw from a surrounding 75-mile radius.”

Mission accomplished. Or as Col. Hannibal Smith of the old TV series “A-Team” famously said: I love it when a plan comes together.

The Downtown Master Plan came together so, shall we say, masterfully, that the City Council in 2017 approved a Midtown Master Plan to keep the good times rolling, except this time in the area of downtown north of Silver Springs Boulevard. The midtown renaissance is a work in progress, but if the results of the Downtown Master Plan of 2004 are any indication, Ocalans have something to look forward to.

Meanwhile, to our neighbors in Gainesville, start with a definitive plan, then stick to it. Of course, as has been noted, Ocala and Gainesville are so, so different. And the latest difference is Ocala has a bustling downtown that’s on the upswing. Gainesville? Not so much.

That said, thanks for visiting, fellas. You’re welcome anytime. Just come downtown. There’s plenty to do.

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