For most of us, 2009 is a year that probably can’t end soon enough. Every day, the news seemed to get more and more bleak—the tragic death of John Travolta’s son, rising unemployment rates, the financial crisis hitting really close to home, a 12-foot pet python that somehow escaped from its cage to strangle a toddler while she slept, the list goes on and on. Yes, it was a mad, mad, mad world.
Of course, we also tried to find some bright spots for this feature, Ocala Style’s first annual “Year In Review.” It was a pretty tough job, but we think we found a handful worth remembering. In all, these are the 35 biggest, quirkiest, and most shocking news stories of this past year. Now, will someone pour the champagne already?
Ocala Mourns Jett
JANUARY 2—The son of local actors John Travolta and Kelly Preston died unexpectedly from a head wound while the family vacationed at their home in the Bahamas. Jett, 16, had a history of seizures, suffered from asthma, and was officially diagnosed with Kawasaki disease, which causes inflammation of the arteries and can result in heart damage. Ocala residents showed their grief for the celebrity couple’s loss by placing wreaths of flowers and homemade signs at the gated entrance to their Jumbolair estate.
“Jett was the most wonderful son that two parents could ever ask for,” the actor said in a written statement. “We are heartbroken that our time with him was so brief. We will cherish the time we had with him for the rest of our lives.”
JANUARY 29—Some things just aren’t meant to be. Take Kid Rock coming to town for a supposed February 7 concert at the livestock pavilion with Darius Rucker (of Hootie & the Blowfish fame) opening.
I met with promoter Mike Myers—who, by the way, makes his living as an Elvis impersonator (I know, you can’t make this up!)—for a lunch meeting at Felix’s to discuss the show, but my radar went up almost immediately. In addition to the Kid Rock show, Myers bragged of bringing The Police, U2, and even Led Zeppelin to Ocala for various outdoor shows at a variety of venues. A true huckster to the end, he even made me pay for lunch! I put all potential coverage on hold until he sorted everything out. I’m glad I did.
Needless to say, I wasn’t too surprised to learn he was later arrested for fraud when he sold nearly 1,000 tickets to the Kid Rock show through his own cell phone number, despite not having any formal agreement with the popular Southern rocker/rapper. I’m just glad that in this business I’ve learned to have an, ahem, suspicious mind.
JANUARY 8—The Florida Gators beat the Oklahoma Sooners 24-14 for the National Championship, its second in three years. Quarterback Tim Tebow threw the winning touchdown with just over three minutes to play. How about an encore, boys?
Ocala National Bank Implodes
JANUARY 30—Ocala National Bank was closed by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and the FDIC entered into a purchase and assumption agreement with CenterState Bank of Winter Haven to assume all of ONB’s deposits. According to an FDIC press release, as of December 31, 2008, Ocala National Bank had total assets of $223.5 million and total deposits of $205.2 million. According to a WFTV report, “teams of federal regulators” spent an entire Saturday sorting through the books “under the watch of armed guards.” It was the sixth FDIC-insured institution closed nationwide in the month.
Ocala Style Turns 10, Doesn’t Demand A New Cell Phone
FEBRUARY—OK, put this in the shameless, self-promotional category, but we’re very proud of the fact that Ocala Style celebrated its first decade with the February issue. Thanks to Creative Director Trevor Byrne and graphic designer Jay Fugate for a killer cover! We now resume our regular programming…
A Day To Remember
FEBRUARY 3—Homesick, the third album by the Ocala-based alternative/hardcore band A Day to Remember was released, selling 22,000 copies in its first week and landing one slot short of the Top 20 on Billboard’s Top Albums chart. It did, however, reach the summit of the Top Independent Albums on February 21. The cut “The Downfall of Us All” was issued as part of the “Victory Track Pack” for Guitar Hero: World Tour a month later.
Larry The Leader
MARCH 3—The Florida House of Representatives named Ocala’s own Larry Cretul as its speaker, providing Marion County with some unexpected clout on the state’s political stage.
522 Teachers Fired
FEBRUARY 13—More than 500 first- and second-year teachers were told by Superintendent Jim Yancey that they would not have jobs in August 2009 for the new school year because of an expected $33 million shortfall in the operations budget. Yancey made the early announcement so the rookies would have enough time to seek instructional positions outside of the county. Understandably, the expected loss of so many local jobs sent shockwaves through the community.
Field Of Dreams
Jorge Gutman’s failed downtown development, City Shops & Walk, is officially a done deal. With a reported unpaid bill to the city in the millions, this is a perfect case of build it and they won’t come. Where’s Shoeless Joe when you need him?
From Books To Brainpower
APRIL— The Institute for Human & Machine Cognition (IHMC), a not-for-profit research institute, began remodeling the old library building downtown. After an intense recruiting period by Ocala/Marion County EDC President/CEO Pete Tesch, IHMC Founder and CEO Dr. Ken Ford agreed to move the high-tech company to a prominent position in Ocala, quite a coup for a city our size. But why us?
“The folks we hire tend to be people who can live anywhere,” IHMC Deputy Director Timothy W. Wright told Florida Trend. “They spend a lot of time thinking deep thoughts and working on computers, and then they may want to escape to the coasts or to the national forest.”
“This is precisely the kind of business any community would love to have,” Marion County Commissioner Stan McClain said in the same article. “It really raises the bar for Marion County.”
Turning The Page
MARCH 18—Ocala book-lovers rejoiced at the opening of the new-and-improved Barnes & Noble at Market Street At Heath Brook west of I-75. Thank goodness! I’m such a frequent visitor, I thought the speed bumps (or speed mountains to be more precise) at the old location were going to knock my car out of alignment. Now, maybe they’ll accept my payroll deduction application…
The Inn Is Out
APRIL 7—Marion County was dealt a real estate blow with the auctioning of the Seven Sisters Inn, a historic property built in 1888 on Fort King Street. Owners Bonnie Morehardt and Ken Oden had been trying to sell the inn for several years at a reported price of just over $1 million, but First Coast Community Bank won the top bid for an even $100,000. The bank received the two Victorian homes, both listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and their contents. The inn’s infamous “spirits,” however, were not listed as part of the sale.
Swine Flu Debuts
MAY 12—The first suspected case of swine flu (H1N1) was confirmed in Marion County. The West Port High student missed a few days of classes and then returned back to school. The Marion County Health Department shortly thereafter established a “citizens’ information line” about local availability of the H1N1 vaccine at (352) 369-7500.
Duck, Duck… Gone?
MAY 26—Sure, our utility rates are skyrocketing, our health care system needs an overhaul, and our hospitals could use some extra cash, but what story got Ocala’s attention for more than a week this summer? The more than 200 Muscovy ducks that called Tuscawilla Park home. Seems that these ducks aren’t—How should we say this?—the cleanest tenants. Okay, they poop all over the place! After the city decided to exterminate them, OWLS, a local animal sanctuary, found a property owner who would give the ducks a new home. I guess we all like a good story, especially one with a happy ending.
Python Strangles Toddler
JULY 1—“Our stupid snake got out in the middle of the night!” shouted Charles Darnell in a frantic 9-1-1 call. “She’s about 12 foot long, got into the baby’s crib, and strangled her to death.”
The Burmese python escaped from its too-small fish tank and wrapped itself around Shaunnia Hare, 2, while she slept in her bedroom in the small Oxford home. According to a Star Banner report, she also had marks on her forehead from where she had been bitten. A non-native species to Florida, the Burmese python can grow to 26 feet and weigh more than 200 pounds.
But here’s the real tragedy—the snake had already escaped earlier that night. Darnell simply placed it back into its glass case, but did not secure it with a lock, as required by state law. Florida lawmakers are considering new legislation to toughen the regulations on exotic pets.
Both Darnell and the baby’s mother, Jaren Hare, were charged with manslaughter, third-degree murder, and child abuse.
MAY 21— The more than 500 new teachers who were told they wouldn’t have jobs in 2009-2010 school year were “re-hired” after the school district was told to expect $32 million in federal stimulus dollars to save those positions. It certainly made summer vacation a lot brighter for those involved!
The Digital Revolution That Almost Wasn’t
JUNE 12—After many months of annoying, nonstop TV ads for converter boxes and digital “tests,” the conversion was complete. Now instead of static-filled broadcasts, we get pixilated ones—or none at all. Must-see TV indeed!
XXX Marks The Spot
AUGUST 3—Jay Judge, 53, was arrested on charges of operating an illegal bottle club and a gambling house. After deputies looked into website advertised sex sites, they raided Judge’s Ocala home, which was known online as Hot Tropics Hideaway. I’ll bet you think much better of your neighbor now, don’t you?
The Day The Music Died
AUGUST 3—WUFT stops playing classical music on its analog signal, choosing a lower-cost NPR talk radio format. “I made this programming decision after several months of research and data analysis,” said John Wright, dean of the college, in a press release. “I believe that WUFT-FM should be a beacon of national and local news and information for our community.” I gotta say, though, I miss my mornings with Mozart, Mussorgsky, and Mendelssohn.
Belleview ‘Guns Down’ Proposition
AUGUST 17—Another story from the you-can’t-make-this-up file, the Belleview City Commission considered a proposal from a long-time resident who urged all “law-abiding citizens” to own the gun of their choice in order to “provide for and protect the safety, security, and general welfare” of the city and its residents. The commissioners wisely nixed the idea. What, the Second Amendment isn’t enough?
AUGUST 6—Taylor Bean & Whittaker closed its mortgage-lending operations a day after the Federal Housing Administration told the company that it wouldn’t insure its loans. In an e-mail to employees titled “The Saddest Day Of My Life,” Chairman Lee Farkas wrote, “I’ve done everything possible to try to save it, but I couldn’t. I apologize to everyone.” More than 1,000 local TB&W employees lost their jobs overnight.
Stimulating The Economy
SEPTEMBER 16—The national stimulus package (a.k.a. the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) reached our backyard this month. Nearly 200 local jobs were created, at a cost of approximately $6 million, for a new Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) telephone call center and for new maintenance positions at county parks. An additional $2.8 million was awarded to the city of Dunnellon to improve its wastewater management facility, and Marion County Senior Services was given $132,000 to create three jobs and assist over 90 seniors with additional meal routes. Additional jobs are pending.
Calling Their Bluff
SEPTEMBER 17—After receiving several warnings by police, the Internet Express Café on SR200 was raided by authorities. According to a press release by Marion County Sheriff’s Office Spokesperson Jenifer Fisher, the café was pulling in between $1,200 and $2,600 per day. Two months earlier, the Cyber Zone Café locations in Silver Springs Shores and Dunnellon were targeted, all part of a larger statewide effort to crack down on Internet gaming cafés.
Adena Springs Gallops Away
OCTOBER 7—Adena Springs, the iconic Thoroughbred breeding facility owned by Frank Stronach, shipped its stallions to other venues in Kentucky and Canada for financial reasons. This was another blow to the local economy and to the ever-important Florida horse industry, which has an estimated annual $1.3 billion economic impact locally. The 3,800-acre farm will not close, although some of the 200 staff positions were reduced.
“The decision to move the Adena South stallions to Canada and Kentucky was not an easy one,” Stronach told Thoroughbred Times. “We will continue to aggressively pursue stallion prospects that fit our program, and will not hesitate to put our Florida facilities to use again for the right stallion or stallions in the future. Our goal is to remain North America’s leading breeder, and we feel that we will be able to best accomplish that goal at this time by strengthening our position in Kentucky and adding to our emerging roster in Canada.”
“But,” he continued, “Adena Springs South is—and will remain—a key part of our overall program.”
13.3% And Climbing
SEPTEMBER 30—The latest unemployment rate for Marion County, according to Workforce Connection.
The Hot Dog Lady Gets Grilled (Almost!)
SEPTEMBER 26—After threatening to revoke The Hot Dog Lady’s business license for repeated parking violations, the city relented and agreed to give Judy Havican another chance. Thank goodness! I’ll take one to go, extra mustard please.
OCTOBER 8—Martha Stacy Leach, 47, won the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur Championship, held for the first time at Golden Hills Golf and Turf Club on Hwy 27 west of I-75. The Rees Jones-designed, 6,173-yard, par-72 course hosted only the second Women’s Mid-Amateur competition to be held in Florida and the first since 1988 in Amelia Island. The prominent tour stop put Ocala’s horse country firmly on the golf world’s map. Here’s hoping it returns soon. Fore!
What’s In A Name?
OCTOBER 9—When the school board wanted to name its then-newest school in Marion Oaks three years ago, they took the recommendation from a school advisory panel after months of debate. The hybrid elementary/middle school would be called Horizon Academy at Marion Oaks, or HAMO for short. Even though the name was selected, some school board members criticized the choice, fearing what students might call it instead or believing that the lengthy title sounded like a private school.
So when the $20 million “New Elementary School U” in Marion Oaks, which should open in August 2010, needed a name, guess what they decide to call it? Board member Judi Zanetti suggested “Marion Oaks Elementary School” and the name easily won approval from the others.
‘Elvis’ Still Hasn’t Left The Building
OCTOBER 14—Less than a year after being arrested for fraudulently selling tickets to a February Kid Rock concert to be held in Ocala (see “Kid Rock vs. Elvis”), Elvis impersonator Mike Myers made headlines again. According to the Star Banner, Myers and his mother befriended Mexican immigrant Alejandro Espinosa and agreed to let him stay with them. After two years of this “arrangement,” Espinosa wondered what had happened to nearly $45,000 he’d set aside in his retirement account. Myers was once again booked for fraud when it was later revealed that two wire transfers had been made out to Myers’ company, The King And I Productions. Sounds like Espinosa’s two-year stay was at the—wait for it!—heartbreak hotel.
Bittings Pharmacy Reopens After Fire
OCTOBER 15—A little over a year after fire ravaged the drive-thru and pharmacy area of Bittings Pharmacy, the 17th Street landmark re-opened. Although arson was suspected in the blaze, which engulfed the entire structure, as of this writing, no one has been apprehended for the, er, “heated” crime.
‘Muni’ Gets A Facelift
OCTOBER 21—Following six months of renovations, Ocala Municipal Golf Course on East Silver Springs Boulevard reopened for play. The extensive construction included new signage, the clubhouse, and several greens.
‘Old Dogs’ Premiere At Hollywood 16
NOVEMBER 20—In his first public appearance following the death of his son, Jett (see “Ocala Mourns Jett”), John Travolta and Kelly Preston once again premiered a film in Ocala. This sneak peek of the comedy Old Dogs was shown almost a full week before its nationwide debut and raised thousands of dollars for local charities. For more information—and lots of exclusive pictures—from the star-studded event, turn to page 52.
Idol Worship Hits Ocala—Again!
OCTOBER 27—American Idol runner-up Jason Castro plays a 30-minute set to hundreds of adoring fans at the Paddock Mall in support of his Atlantic Records self-titled debut album, slated for an early 2010 release. He talked playfully to the crowd and signed autographs and posed for pictures long after playing the final note on his acoustic guitar. Of course, you, the astute reader of Ocala Style that you are, remember that former Idol contestant Kellie Pickler played there back in January 2007, which begs this question: When did Ocala’s Paddock Mall become the Budokan of game show hopefuls?
Closing Time For The Old Auditorium?
With the city accepting bids for the demolition of the old auditorium, it could be soon the final curtain call for the historic structure. Sure, Arthur Fiedler conducted the Boston Pops Orchestra there in its mid-‘50s heyday, but our elected officials have deemed it “too expensive” to maintain, although this statement does appear on the city’s official website: “The City of Ocala recognizes the value of historic preservation in promoting the cultural, economic, educational, and general welfare of its citizens and the public at large.”
Naturally, knocking down the auditorium is a controversial topic.
“I moved to Ocala in 1955 and remember many beautiful buildings that are now gone,” wrote Brian Voge on an ocala.com blog. “Now they want to tear down the old city auditorium, a beautiful Art Deco building. It seems that our history is being erased a few buildings at a time.”
In the midst of the worst recession in two decades, who would’ve predicted that 2009 would be the best year for downtown eateries in a long time? With Mark’s Prime, Harry’s, the Ocala Wine Experience, and Starbucks firmly entrenched, some cool new names were added to that list—La Cuisine, The Mojo Grill, Ocala Chocolate & Confections, Pi On Broadway, Stella’s Modern Pantry, and Sushi Bistro. Now you have plenty of reasons to explore a part of Ocala that many people overlook. Bon appetit!
Did We Miss Anything?
If you have something important that didn’t make the “Year In Review,” send us an e-mail to email@example.com and we’ll print the best ones in an upcoming issue.