Marion County saw huge growth last year

Highest growth rate in a decade leaves county at 368, 135 residents as of April 1

Marion County was one of Florida’s fastest-growing counties over the past decade.

But last year, its growth rate accelerated even faster.

Between April 1, 2019, and April 1, 2020, Marion County added 7,714 people to reach 368,135 residents, according to population data compiled annually by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research, or BEBR, at the University of Florida.

That was a year-over-year growth rate of 2.14 percent. That was 14 percent higher than 2019, and the biggest annual jump in at least a decade.

That population total also includes the number of inmates incarcerated within the county.

Rich Doty, GIS coordinator and research demographer for BEBR, said the agency is perplexed that the pandemic did not appear to slow the growth.

“We’re still not seeing it,” Doty said of a potential slowdown. “It’s sort of mind-blowing.”

“A lot of the indicators still show pretty robust growth in the state, including Marion County,” he added. “It is a head-scratcher.”

Doty also noted that migration – people moving to Florida from outside the state – is the driving force of all new population growth. That’s because Floridians are not having enough babies to replace people who die.

Kevin Sheilley, president and CEO of the Ocala/Marion County Chamber and Economic Partnership, said growth is vital, but not without challenges that must be considered seriously.

“I think most businesses, and I would argue most residents, know you are either growing or dying – there is no in-between,” he said. “Growth means we can continue to fill the jobs we are creating in the marketplace, continue to see wages increase, and add additional and needed services – such as the ever-expanding healthcare systems. It means more customers and more opportunities.”

But, he observed, there is a recognition that growth is not free of challenges.

That “why we must continue to partner and work with local governments to draft plans, and financing, to address the growth,” said Sheilley.

“It is a key reason the CEP is so very supportive of the renewal of the Local Option Infrastructure Sales Tax. It is one of the best ways to fund many of the needed improvements to address growth. It is also why we worked with the County Commission and Horse Farms Forever to strengthen the Farmland Preservation Area to ensure we are maintaining this important component to what makes our community special as we continue to grow.

The sales tax is up for a four-year renewal on the Nov. 3 ballot.

On the latter point, Sheilley may find an ally in Guy Marwick, one of Marion County’s leading environmentalists.

He expressed concern that the return of rapid population growth may revive some of the pre-Great Recession policies that put natural areas and resources at risk.

“I don’t know how much growth we can handle before we lose our quality of life,” said Marwick.

While that effects things like roads and schools, it is especially so for water.

Marwick pointed out that three consecutive years of above-average rainfall have only brought the aquifer that supplies the bulk of Marion County’s drinking water back to its long-term average.

Marwick said it’s time to rekindle ideas that preserve land and resources, such as the community’s horse farms and the designated Farmland Preservation Area in northwest Marion, before growth spirals out of control.

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