Here’s to you, Ocala

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Posted July 22, 2022 | By Sadie Fitzpatrick
sadie@ocalagazette.com

Editor’s Note: Sadie Fitzpatrick uses this space to explore the character and quirks that make Ocala uniquely wonderful and occasionally irksome. 

 

“Where are you from?”

It is a common question asked of visitors, a way to pinpoint their accents, to determine their intentions. It’s a question I’ve never been asked in Ocala until recently.

On a date night with my husband this past weekend, we were enjoying our cocktails at a local restaurant. As she inquired about our plans for the night, the bartender asked, “Where are you from?”

This question floored me. I thought, I’m from Ocala, we’re in Ocala, isn’t everyone here also from Ocala? When I told her I was born and raised here, she remarked that I may be the first native Ocalan she has met.

It struck me that my sweet, once sleepy hometown is now a go-to destination for individuals from around the world. Thousands of people are moving here each year to work in any of the specific industries for which we are becoming known (equine, manufacturing, logistics, etc.) and to raise their families in the (often blistering) sunshine of central Florida. We are no longer just a brief bathroom break on someone’s drive along Interstate 75. People now stop and stay awhile, or forever.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think Ocala would be the bustling metropolis it is today.

In fact, I once swore I’d never come back.

As a college-bound 18 year old, I was determined to shake loose the constraints of my small-town upbringing. Ocala was too small, too “Podunk,” too claustrophobic. I yearned for bright lights, big cities and anonymity.

I thought success meant leaving behind what you’d known and creating a new life for yourself far away from where you began. I explored big cities, met new, fascinating people. My wanderlust began to fade, however, and the siren song of Ocala, of home, soon called.

Ocala welcomed me back with open arms. There was no “Where have you been?” Or “Why did you leave?” That’s the beauty of calling somewhere home—there are no questions asked, they’re just glad you made your way back.

The aspect of Ocala I once despised, the lack of anonymity, is now one of my favorite things. It means you have forged relationships with people and those relationships have stood the test of time.

For example, I love that our veterinarian is the same vet who treated my childhood animals. I love that I walked into a group fitness class for the first time last year and knew three of the seven women in the room. One of them babysat my brothers and me as children and another is the wife of my favorite high school math teacher. There’s always a connection to someone, somewhere, somehow. That’s Ocala.

Our growth is not without pain, however. This rapid development we have experienced has put Ocala on the map but should not come at the expense of our sacred farmland. These should, in fact, remain horse farms, forever.

Our political and social growth lags behind our economic gains, but I have high hopes that we will one day have the political and social diversity of other large cities.

I once thought that achieving success required you to leave behind the place you called home to forge a new path. Returning home to Ocala has shown me that success does not have to mean abandoning the place where you began. It can be found in returning home, a place where you are comfortable enough to try on a new version (or versions) of yourself until you find the one that best suits you.

Where am I from?

I’m from Ocala.