A mega-complex in the making
Marion County Parks and Rec’s potential plans for a new multipurpose sports complex consider tourism, the need for an emergency shelter and America’s growing pickleball obsession.
File photo: Jim Couillard, the director of Marion County Parks and Recreation speaks during a County Commission Capital Improvement Project Workshop in the County Commission auditorium at the McPherson Governmental Complex in Ocala, Fla. on Monday, March 21, 2022. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2022.
Marion County Parks and Recreation Director Jim Couillard is exploring possibilities for a new state-of-the-art, multipurpose sports facility.
He envisions a Marion County super complex with three key purposes: weekly recreation programs, weekend tournaments and an emergency shelter, built to FEMA standards.
The location hasn’t been determined yet, he said, but he and other officials have their sights on southwest Ocala.
“We’re going to have to do a proper analysis of location, factoring in accessibility to major roadways,” Couillard said, adding that “there’s even a bit of an assessment of an ongoing traffic situation,” which Couillard declined to explain, a complication which the Marion County Board of County Commissioners is “working hard” at figuring out.
The prospective megacomplex is a “vision” that Couillard and his colleagues, and officials with the county’s visitors and convention bureau, have been discussing for around six months. Its full scope came into view after a tour of a world-class facility an hour south of Marion County: The Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus in Wesley Chapel.
Pasco County’s tourism agency, the Florida Sports Coast, describes Wiregrass as “an unrivaled sports facility consisting of a 98,000 square-foot indoor sports arena.”
Couillard told the “Gazette” that he was impressed with its wow factor and ability to draw locals as well as visitors from across the U.S. to national competitions, and Couillard reported in a May 17 Marion Board of County Commissioners visioning workshop that the parks and recreation department is working with tourism development officials, who are in the process of soliciting proposals for a competitive gap analysis.
“(The analysis) will give us a regional assessment of where we are in the sports tourism and youth tourism marketplaces,” he told the commission.
Tourism Development Director Loretta Shaffer calls the complex plans a “win-win-win” for Marion County’s parks and recreation, tourism and emergency management.
In Pasco, the Residence Inn Tampa Wesley Chapel hotel, adjacent to Wiregrass Ranch, accommodates out-of-town athletes and their families, who also shop at the nearby Shops at Wiregrass.
Peering inside the Wiregrass complex, you’ll find 70,000 square feet of polished hardwood floor accommodates eight full-size basketball courts, which can convert to 16 volleyball courts, cheerleading and gymnastics areas, a multipurpose area, a 360-degree viewing mezzanine and a variety of meeting spaces.
Outdoors are two multipurpose fields, equivalent to two official soccer fields with five additional fields “coming soon,” which will have plenty of parking.
How much Ocala’s future complex will resemble Wiregrass remains to be seen.
“Marion County is in the process of negotiating with a prospective consultant who will be studying and reporting back to us as to what is the best tack and product we could provide for our community and for our visitors,” Couillard told the “Gazette,” adding that facilities’ plans are “a long-term process, and it will take nearly four-to-five months before we see the results.”
With three different uses in one facility, he said he foresees “multiple funding sources that could be found to help this type of project … something we could provide here locally that would also support our tourism industry.”
Concerns around the accessibility of pickleball courts came up during the May commission meeting, with support and questions from Commissioners Michelle Stone and Carl Zalak.
The burgeoning mini-tennis-like sport with a funny name — of disputed origins, invented in 1965 — has continued over recent weeks to be included in conversations about the complex, Couillard told the “Gazette.”
Stone asked if boundary lines conforming to the game’s smaller-than-tennis specifications would be painted instead of simply playing pickleball on a tennis regulation-size court.
Couillard affirmed that would not be the case at the new megacomplex.
He said municipalities are scrambling to keep up with the demand for regulation-size pickleball courts, and that players from The Villages will drive an hour out of their way to play pickleball at Coehadjoe Park, which has courts marked for pickleball.
“It is the fastest-growing sport in the nation for the third or fourth year in a row,” Couillard told the “Gazette.”
“The average age of American pickleball players has come down to around 38 years old,” he shared, adding that “the demand is spreading across all age groups, all abilities. …
“Neighboring counties that have substantial pickleball facilities are already hosting big Professional Pickleball Association tours and major league pickleball events. So, it’s happening all around us and the demand’s going to keep going. So, yes, pickleball will be included as part of that scope for our consultant, as well.”