State of Affairs
Sandra Wilson, the Ocala City Manager, gives her state of the city presentation during the Ocala Metro Chamber & Economic Partnership exCEPtional Mornings breakfast at the Church of Hope on Southeast Maricamp Road in Ocala, Fla. on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2021.
Sandra Wilson offers highlights in first State of the City address
Ocala City Manager Sandra Wilson had no shortage of listeners as she gave her first State of the City address at the Ocala Metro County Chamber and Economic Partnership’s exCEPtional Mornings breakfast on June 16 at the Church of Hope.
The event was the first since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased COVID-19 guidelines. A full house showed up, almost all without masks. Many hugged and shook hands for the first time in more than a year.
And while the challenges of the pandemic are not over, Wilson offered that Ocala has a lot to celebrate.
According to U.S. News and World Report, the Ocala Metro area was recently ranked the fifth-fasted growing metropolitan statistical area in the country.
“That’s huge for us,” Wilson said.
And the effects of the city’s growth are apparent, she said.
Residential developments are sprouting all around. The massive housing project known as West Oak Development at the former Pine Oaks golf course is leading the way.
The West Oak project is slated to bring 386 single-family homes, 832 multi-family homes, 150 townhouses and 70,000-square-feet of commercial space. Of the residential units, 20% will be affordable housing units.
“This is going to be a game-changer for our city,” Wilson said. “Because everyone knows housing… there’s a shortage in housing.”
Other projects such as Watula South, Lamplighter Legacy and Tuscawilla ARTpartments will bring “much-needed units” to the downtown area.
Downtown Ocala continues to thrive, putting a strain on parking. Wilson said city leaders are planning a second downtown parking garage.
“With all of the activities and everything going on downtown, parking is getting kind of critical,” she said. “So, you need to know that we are actively investigating a location for our second parking garage in downtown. We’ll see that coming soon.”
According to Wilson, there’s also been growing interest in the Ocala International Airport and its surrounding areas. There’s been more interest in the airport in the last 90 days than the last three years, she said.
The city is also seeing continued growth and success in many of its municipal utilities and services, such as the Ocala Fiber Network and Ocala Electric Utility.
Ocala Fiber Network, which offers fiber optic internet, has seen a 22% increase and 26% increase in commercial and residential accounts, respectively.
“We know that the fiber is an economic driver for our community because every business needs that connectivity,” Wilson said. “And they need it fast. And that’s what we deliver.”
Wilson also shared that Ocala Electric Utility earned the “diamond designation” from the American Public Power Association, which looks at reliability, safety and improvements. The diamond designation is the highest level of distinction.
The city’s fire rescue and stormwater efforts are also among the best in the country, according to Wilson.
According to Wilson, the city’s ISO rating for fire is in the top 5.5% of communities around the nation. ISO evaluates municipal fire-protection efforts across the United States. The rating influences insurance rates.
Meanwhile, the city continues to keep its property tax rate level, and the penny sales tax keeps doing its job for the city’s infrastructure efforts.
“I want to thank each and every one of you who voted to renew the one-cent sales tax. Because we’ve been able to do exactly what we said we were going to do with that funding,” she said.
The city has spent $8 million on road projects and has constructed three fire stations and two police substations with the help of the penny tax. According to Wilson, the city has another $1.5 million earmarked for more road projects this year.
And the city hasn’t forgotten the power of public art.
Ocala currently has 89% more public art per capita than Chicago, Wilson said.
And despite scaling back on community events due to COVID-19, the city has seen an economic impact of $240,000 from cultural arts events since October.