By Robert Arrieta
Ah, the great bard William Shakespeare knew exactly what he was talking about when he lamented, through his famous character Romeo, about the pains of loneliness. How the hours drag by when you are without love, the sappy boy wept in the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet. And so it has been with Ocala, the hours, days, and years dragging by without a companion to help pass the time.
Not since the early ‘70s, when Ocala was still blissfully joined with Sincelejo, Colombia, has our city known completeness through a relationship with a sister city. Unfortunately, like many adolescent relationships, that one faded and Ocala has been left alone for the last three decades. But, alas, the blooming of the flowers this spring signaled a new love for our fair city and, while matrimonial bells were not exactly tolling, vows were exchanged.
On April 19, the city of Ocala and the city of San Rossore, Italy, made it official and entered into a covenant as sister cities, both promising to further the relationship through a cultural, educational, and economical exchange. Like all strong relationships, the sister city alliance between Ocala and San Rossore did not blossom overnight. It is the net result of an exhaustive process that took almost a year.
Heading the search, and playing matchmaker in the process, was Jaye Baillie of the Ocala/Marion County Chamber of Commerce.
“It has been a very exciting project to be a part of,” says Baillie. “I think this is something that the community is going to benefit from for a long time.”
The search began for a companion city last fall, according to Baillie, after a One Ocala/One America weeklong event in which participants were looking for a way to explore and celebrate different cultures. During that event, the participants — including key city council members — had an epiphany: There must be a better way to develop stronger, more significant international ties than just hosting an event once or twice a year.
So Baillie was put in charge of finding a sister city.
It was a duty Baillie admits she was thrilled to fulfill and was one that rung a personal resonance with her. As a student in the ‘70s at then Osceola Junior High, Baillie traveled with her class to Sincelejo as part of an educational exchange program.
“I got to experience, first hand, the benefit of a sister city partnership,” Baillie shares. “I’ve been sad for many years that we haven’t had a sister city program anymore. This opportunity was too great to pass up for me and for Ocala.”
Like characters in a Rob Reiner romantic comedy, Baillie and a committee of volunteers set out to locate a suitable companion for their hometown. Finding that perfect someone often takes a person a lifetime, so where does one turn to pair up an entire city?
Baillie went to the professionals — Sister City International, a non-profit organization that helps coordinate sister city programs and provides guidance for such programs. Like any other dating organization, SCI has a website brimming with profiles of like-minded municipalities seeking partners. Baillie said she spent many hours pouring over the listings.
After sifting through page after page of city profiles and rejecting more than she can remember — this one’s too large, this one’s too small, too industrial, too rural — Baillie needed help.
“I thought that there had to be an easier way to find a sister city,” Baillie recounts. “This was taking too long and was getting nowhere.”
In fact, Baillie likened her search to spinning a globe and blindly poking her finger on it and researching whatever city happened to be there. Looking for help wherever she could find it, Baillie sought assistance from Dick Hancock, the executive director of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association.
Knowing that Hancock crosses paths with horse traders from around the world on a regular basis, Baillie asked if he knew of a city that might fit the profile she was so desperately seeking.
Hancock mentioned the situation to an Italian doctor living in south Florida who had been a regular buyer at the Ocala Breeders’ Sales. Like so many matchmaking attempts, Hancock’s conversation ended along the lines that he knew of a city that would be perfect — a great personality, very attractive, and very interested in horses.
So…Ocala, meet San Rossore; San Rossore meet Ocala. Horse Capital meet Il Paese Dei Cavalli, or Village of the Horses.
It almost seemed too good to be true. San Rossore, in the Tuscany region of Italy is between Pisa and the Ligurian Sea. Within its borders, it has a national forest nearly the size of the Ocala National Forest and shares our area’s unmistakable fondness for horses.
Since 1854, horse racing has been a key part of Pisa and San Rossore’s culture, and Fedrico Tesio, one of the world’s most accomplished breeders, also hails from the region. Tesio’s legacy has already spilled into Marion County borders and helped strengthen the bond between the two cities. A bloodline of horses at Bridlewood Farms is the product of two of Tesio’s most accomplished horses — Nearco, undefeated in 14 races, and Ribot, undefeated in 16 races and who bred a Preakness winner in Codex.
For Hancock, the link between the two regions was already formed. But as sister cities, the bond will now only grow stronger.
“The world is getting smaller and we’ve found that when we reach out our hand, people find Marion County very attractive,” says Hancock. “This is a great opportunity for our industry. It was too good to pass up.”
At the ceremony, where a delegation of Italian representatives and Marion County officials signed an agreement to pursue the sister city relationship, Ocala Mayor Gerald Ergle said citizens from both countries were entering into a time of great opportunity.
“The most exciting times are when new doors open,” Ergle told the assembled crowd. “This is an exciting morning for Ocala because a new door is opening to us.”
For Baillie, she would just like to see the newlyweds prosper together.
“This is just the beginning,” says Baillie. “There are so many opportunities.” Some of which include reestablishing a student exchange program, similar to the one that sent Baillie to South America. But the link doesn’t stop there.
“I see a senior exchange,” she continues. “I see a chance for our museum to get involved. I want to see CFCC [Central Florida Community College] get involved. There are so many things we can do now.”
And like Humphrey Bogart’s famous lines at the end of Casablanca, Baillie sees this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
ommunity is going to benefit from for a long time.”
By Robert Arrieta