Even Floridians who don’t live in Marion County concede that the Ocala area is stunning. Its landscape features thoroughbred horses grazing on gently rolling hills sprinkled liberally with barns, stables and training tracks bounded by white picket fences. Whether it is the limestone-enriched soil or the climate that makes Marion County the almost ideal horse county is a subject of some discussion and debate, but all agree that this part of Florida is currently breeding and raising some of the world’s finest horses. Its recent past is illustrious, too. Carry Back, Affirmed and Foolish Pleasure, among many others, enjoyed the region’s pure air, good water, great grass and mild climate before making racing history.
These days, Ocala is mentioned in the same breath as Lexington, Kentucky and Newmarket, England as a place where the very best racing stock is raised and trained. Located in north central Florida, 70 miles north of Orlando and 35 miles south of its sister city, Gainesville, Ocala is both the largest city and the county seat of Marion County, which is also home to outdoor attractions like the state-owned Silver Springs attraction and pristine forest areas like the Ocala National Forest. But it’s also a great people place, where friendly people live in small hamlets with names like Fellowship, Friendship, Shady and Golden Hills. And there is the fabulous residential area near downtown in the beautiful Historic District.
Home Sweet Home
Want to get away from the hustle and bustle of life, but still enjoy the amenities of a cultural city life? You can have this — and more — in Ocala. The rolling hills, swaying trees, acre after acre of horse farms and a delightful annual mean temperature of 70.3 degrees Fahrenheit are especially attractive to our out of state visitors. But there is a major difference in housing here compared to other markets — for you can get a lot of home and land for your money. The Ocala/Marion County Association of Realtors, notes that “you can find anything from a modest bungalow to a magnificent mansion.” Existing homes are priced from $50,000 to $5 million, giving potential buyers a variety of properties from which to choose. For example, for the area’s median sales price for existing homes (about $95,000) you can find an 1,800 square foot, three-bedroom and two-bath home with a garage. Although single-family home sales dominate the market (about 55%), town homes, villas, condos, horse farms, elegant gated communities and investment properties are also readily available. One of the hottest areas for new families coming into our area is the southeast residential area, including our beautiful Historic District. Many retirement communities are also available, such as the Oak Run community, the largest in the area, and The Colonnades. The Country Club of Ocala located in southwestern Ocala, has more than one hundred fifty homes that are on approximately one acre and other amenities like swimming pools and a terrific 18-hole golf course. Interested in waterfront property? Vacant property on Lake Weir, the largest lake in Marion County, goes for about $1,500 per front foot. Many activities such as seaplane rides, jet skiing, sail boating and fishing occur on Lake Weir. If you want to find an existing Lake Weir waterfront home of approximately 2,000 square feet, plan on paying between $280,000 to $350,000. Prices are higher for high-quality lakefront with amenities like boat houses, docks, special landscaping, or for larger homes. For golfers, Ocala has over 20 courses in the nearby area, some of which being located in golf communities. Two of our courses are city-owned, one a fabulous 18-hole layout and one a 27 hole challenge. In reality, there are about 22 golf courses within 25 miles of downtown Ocala and only two of them are private clubs.
- Marion County Population: 303,000
- City of Ocala Population: 50,000
- Median age: 50.5
- New citizens: 8,500 annually
- New job creation: 3 percent
- Unemployment rate: about 4 percent
- Cost of living: 93.15 percent (weighted state average=100)
- Per capita income: $20,300
- Median effective household buying income: $27,950
Rain & Shine
The climate is as inviting as the countryside. In January, the average low is 50 degrees Fahrenheit; in July, the average high is 90 degrees Fahrenheit. It rains approximately 116 days annually, with a yearly average total of 51 inches, but most afternoon showers don’t last long before the sun returns. Occasionally the region will experience a light frost, but a hard freeze would be reasonably uncommon.
Almost 30,000 jobs owe their Marion County existence to the thoroughbred horse business; more than 450 horse farms are located here; and the industry’s economic impact is said to be $1 billion annually. Other major economic engines include health care (three hospitals and at least ten nursing homes), high-tech communications gear, fire and rescue equipment manufacture and electronics. Among a work force totaling more than 95,000, about 21,000 provide services, about 12,500 work for various governmental units and 11,500 are in manufacturing. Several thousand more are gainfully employed in a variety of agribusiness. Major private employers include Munroe Medical Center (2.400); Emergency One (1,600); Publix Super Markets (1,300); Ocala Regional Medical Center (1,300); Winn-Dixie Stores (911); Clairson International (Closetmaid) (1150); Dayco (900); and Cingular Wireless (950).
Extensive information about the schools in this area is online at the state’s Department of Education. There you will discover everything you’ll need to know about Florida schools — in general and about Marion County schools specifically. All you need is the name of your county and the names of the schools students from your neighborhood attend. Use links from the DOE home page for general information about entrance requirements, immunizations and so forth. For the nitty-gritty details that really matter, click on the logo for the “Florida School Indicators Report.” Or, for more specific information, please contact ROBERTS REAL ESTATE, INC. and ask that we send to you a Marion County educational package (the same is also available from the school system).
A segment of Interstate 75, a major north-south highway, is adjacent to the Ocala area, which has three exits. U.S. Highways 441 and 27 also traverse on a north-south axis; so does State Road 19. An east-west road, State Road 40, bisects the county as it travels westward across the state from Ormond Beach to Yankeetown. Most citizens need cars to get around, but traffic is comparatively sparse and not a problem. The city of Ocala also provides scheduled bus service throughout the city limits. Amtrak passenger service and CSX freight service is available, as are two executive airports, Ocala Regional and Dunnellon Airport, and a regional airport is an hour away in Gainesville (Alachua County). This interior county has no deep-water port, but the Port of Tampa is 90 miles away and the Port of Jacksonville is 100 miles away. Major airports are Orlando (80 miles), Tampa (100 miles), and Jacksonville (100 miles).
Fresh air, sparkling lakes, freshwater springs, scrub grass and trees abound, so the outdoors really is great here. One segment of Marion County’s southwestern border is the Withlachoochee River, famous for its beauty and the wildlife in and around it. Rainbow Springs State Park near Dunnellon in the county’s southwest segment is not only one of Florida’s newest parks, but it contains something rare in the state — waterfalls. Silver Springs is a natural wonder — and also one of Florida’s oldest attractions. The largest of Florida’s 300 springs, it gushes 550 million gallons of water daily, and visitors like viewing it from glass-bottomed boats. There is also a petting zoo for the kids, a nature trail for the energetic of all ages and a reptile institute, as well as an amphibian display. But the highlight for most nature lovers is the 383,220 acre Ocala National Forest, one of the south’s oldest and largest and almost three-quarters of which is within Marion County. It’s home to the endangered Florida panther, many species of birds, plus lots of alligators, raccoons and rabbits. Campsites and hiking trails are abundant. Lake Eaton Sinkhole features stairs to its bottom, interpretive signs and a 1.7 mile trail that fosters understanding of a mini but complete ecosystem. The forest’s 12-mile Juniper Springs offers sensational canoeing, and hiking, cave diving, swimming, boating, fishing and hunting are other popular activities of visitors and residents. Several small towns are actually within the forest’s borders. The Cross Creek area, made famous by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings novel, The Yearling, is only a few miles over the county’s northern border in neighboring Alachua County.
For those who aren’t involved in hiking, diving or canoeing, golf courses and tennis courts are abundant. For those who are, you’ll be very happy here. A recently opened mountain bike and horseback riding trail on the Cross Florida Greenway (once land set aside for the infamous Cross Florida Barge Canal) is extremely popular. (About 40,000 of the Greenway acres are in northern Marion County.) The 66-mile long Ocala Trail is blazed in orange paint and said to be easy to follow, although physically demanding. Blue blazes lead to side trails, water or camping sites. Ocala is a good place to be a good sport and participate in individual sporting activities. Sixteen county parks — many with boat ramps, four partnership parks (county and another public or private entity) and four city parks complement an extraordinary number of state and federal facilities in the area. Spectator sports are all here in the nearby region. Fans of collegiate athletics have two big-time college sports programs, the University of Florida in Gainesville and Florida State University in Tallahassee. One only needs to travel 1 ½ – 2 hours to do a wide range of professional sports in Jacksonville, Orlando and Tampa.
Hot Times in the City
Ocala prides itself on its All-American City image, its environmentally friendly approach to civic responsibilities and its major effort to spruce up its downtown area. Time and money have gone into renovations and historical preservation in an attempt to slow, stop or even reverse the business and cultural exodus to the suburbs. The city and its downtown is definitely back, but the county’s uncontested fine arts mecca is just outside of the city limits.
The Appleton Museum of Art, a relatively new venue, is housed in an impeccable contemporary classic structure of marble and glass set among 34 wooded acres. It’s approached via a long driveway with an elaborate yet classical ornamental pool. About 5,000 years of art history is represented in the works that grace its tasteful yet eclectic collection. The city donated the site, but the beautiful $12 million building and the collections housed within were first privately financed and then given to the foundation of Central Florida Community College by the Appleton family, originally from Chicago. Arthur Appleton owns Bridlewood, a 900-acre horse farm, in fashionable northwest Marion County. From ancient antiquities and Russian icons to West African art and contemporary paintings, the collection is impressive — especially an original bronze cast, one of only 13, of Rodin’s well-known sculpture, The Thinker. Next door to the museum is the Ocala Civic Theatre, which is considered one of the most significant and successful civic theaters in the State of Florida. Its productions are both highly acclaimed and very well attended, and altogether there are more than 70 performances each year at the theater.
Also worth a look and well-liked by archaeologically inclined locals, is the Native American and pre-Colombian burial ground nearby at the Crystal River State Archaeological Site. Its museum features discoveries going back as far as 200 B.C. Or visit one of the areas many horse farms that welcome the public who stop by and take a polite look about. Some will even allow drive-through tours and a few permit self-guided tours through selected parts of their properties. Visitors and newcomers will find this exercise both entertaining and enlightening. Annual events include Ocala’s Brick City Day in March, Ma Barker Day in Ocklawaha in April, Reddick’s Horse and Buggy Days in May and the Florida Blueberry Festival each June in Ocala. On the Fourth of July, Ocala celebrates God and Country Day. In August it’s time for Ocalifest. Fall brings the Shriner’s Rodeo and Parade to the county seat. October’s big event is the Florida Horse and Agriculture Festival and the fabulous Ocala Art Show, a two-day event which is now considered one of the leading art shows in the State. November features Light Up Ocala and the Festival of Trees at the Appleton Museum, and in December the Chamber of Commerce puts on the Sunshine Christmas Parade. H.I.T.S. is a major horse show that attracts tens of thousands of visitors over a 30 day period in February – March.
Shop ’til You Drop
Ocala itself offers stores in virtually every category — clothing, furniture and appliances, office supplies and so forth, so you won’t need to leave the area to shop unless you want something really hard to find. If antiques ring your bell, two of Florida’s finest antique towns — High Springs and Micanopy — aren’t very far away, but in truth there is now a collection of wonderful antique stores and boutique shops near the downtown square. Our Paddock Mall houses 100 stores and is the focal point for local shopping.
Fine dining and very popular casual dining are both abundant in Ocala. A wide variety of ethnic foods and international specialty foods are here to enjoy, together with a huge variety of all-American franchise restaurants of all specialties. There are a number of bars open and some feature live music and dancing.
College of Central Florida (CF) enrolls about 7,000 at its Ocala campus. Part of the state community-college system, it is a two-year institution that offers both an Associate of Arts (A.A.) and an AS degree, which open the doors of Florida’s state university system, where students with A.A. or A.S. degrees often go to complete their undergraduate education. The University of Florida in Gainesville with its 48,000 students is about 45 minutes north of Ocala, so it’s exceedingly convenient and actually within commuting distance from throughout central and northern Marion County. Standards at the university are going up, as is the state’s population, so freshman must have good grades and excellent test scores for acceptance. And Florida State University is only about three hours northwest of Ocala in Tallahassee, our State’s capital.