Business Year in Review

President/CEO of the Ocala Metro Chamber and Economic Partnership Kevin Sheilley [OG/Bruce Ackerman]
I am not sure how one could view 2021 as anything but an incredibly successful year for businesses in the Ocala Metro. The CEP is excited to review how our community continues to grow, diversify, and prosper.

Economic Growth

The local economy continues to demonstrate very strong fundamentals. As of the time of this writing, the local unemployment rate was only 4.2%. The Ocala Metro has consistently led the state in the growth of manufacturing jobs throughout the year with a manufacturing workforce of nearly 11,000. Logistics, construction, hospitality, healthcare, and services all reported strong growth throughout the year. More importantly, the Ocala Metro is recording job growth while at the same time seeing wages report healthy gains.

Industrial Spec Development

One of the most significant changes in the local business community has been the planned investment by nearly a dozen companies in the area for industrial spec development projects that will add north of 7 million sq. ft. to the local market over the next 18 months. Why is this important? Not only will each of these facilities attract new companies and jobs, but just the investment in the facilities represents a capital investment of $700 million. As these facilities are added to the tax rolls in future years, that represents millions of dollars for local governments, our schools, and first responders. Millions of dollars in investment that benefit every citizen.

New & Expanded Companies

Several new companies opened facilities or had new facilities under construction in 2021. Optimum RV announced in the summer they were locating their new corporate headquarters in a recently acquired office building in Southeast Ocala. This new facility allowed them to add more than 50 high-wage jobs with opportunity for more growth in the future. Cardinal LG, which already operates two manufacturing facilities and a regional office locally, opened a new Technology Center to support R&D in the laminated glass industry. This new facility is located in the Meadowbrook Industrial Park and is just down the street from the new 200,000 sq. ft. warehouse for Signature Brands.

While Ocala has long been known as a manufacturing hub, a new industry recently discovered the value of manufacturing and distributing here. Three cultivation and processing facilities (considered biopharmaceutical by the industrial rating services) are under construction for the medical cannabis industry. Over the next few years, these facilities for GTI and Green Ops will employ more than 350 people at wages well above the community average. Additionally, other companies are looking at the market in this segment with at least one more anticipated in early 2022.

Healthcare

An item which can no longer be denied is the growth of Ocala as a regional healthcare hub. Continued investments and expansions by AdventHealth Ocala, Ocala Regional Medical Center, and West Marion Community Hospital have added beds, new service lines, and increased access to care throughout the community, all while continuing to provide amazing care through the pandemic. ORMC is adding a floor to finish its critical care tower while West Marion has begun work on a third tower with plans for an inpatient rehab and more beds. AdventHealth continues to expand services, especially with its refurbished and expanded NICU and its new, free-standing ER in Belleview. At the end of year, the Ocala City Council rezoned approximately 30 acres near US 27 and I-75 for a new hospital—the area’s fourth—being built by UF Health.

Downtown

The continued growth and redevelopment of the downtown core is truly something in which every citizen can take pride. New restaurants and establishments such as Cantina and Mutiny opened this year with several more in the works including the long-awaited Mellow Mushroom. The expanded Reilly Arts Center opened its new black box theater and lobby areas which doubled the size of this popular entertainment venue. Further down Tuscawilla Park, the new Artpartments opened with 27 apartments. Several major residential developments were kicking off at the end of the year, including the Watula South Townhomes, Lamplighter Legacy luxury apartments, and Brick City Lofts. Activity and interest in downtown remains high with a number of exciting projects in the pipeline in the Midtown portion of downtown.

Tourism

Finally, it would be impossible to discuss business growth in 2021 and not discuss the World Equestrian Center. This incredible complex had its soft opening in December 2020 and rolled out hard into the year. Featuring five indoor arenas, 25 outdoor arenas, 2800+ permanent barn stalls, a beautiful 250-room luxury hotel, and 8 restaurants, WEC has become a destination for equestrians and non-equestrians alike. With more than 700 employees and an annual economic impact already well north $100 million, this complex has single-handedly reimagined the local tourism economy. Work had begun at the end of the year on Phase 2, which will bring 80,000 sq. ft of retail, more meeting space, and a 400-room hotel by mid-2024.

Another project which kicked-off construction in 2021 and will open in early 2022 is the new Florida Aquatic Swimming and Training (FAST) facility. This $30 million facility being built as a part of the new Calesa master-planned community just south of the airport is truly a one-of-a-kind competition aquatic center. Featuring indoor and outdoor competition pools, seating for 2000 spectators, and state of the art scoreboards and timing systems, this facility has the capacity and ability to host major national level events. When in opens in March, Ocala will boast two major tourism draws that will significantly expand the local tourism economy and all the businesses which support it.

Posted in News, Opinion

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