The View: Marion County’s Global Positioning

It was a fine morning in Ocala as we listened to city officials, the EDC folks and local developer Bob Montavani discuss their vision for a new industrial park. As a new professional with Florida’s International Trade Division, I gazed over the hundreds of acres of cow pastures and vacant fields wondering what these energetic people from this small town were thinking.It’s very scenic, but there’s not much here, I thought to myself.

Standing a bit east of Jim Taylor Field at Ocala Regional Airport, my colleagues and I listened to Bob enthusiastically emphasize that a 100,000-square-foot speculative building would be erected on this very spot. Strategically located, we learned that Marion County could then attract manufacturing and wholesale distribution prospects eager to take advantage of Florida’s explosive economic growth.

On our way to Miami, we had stopped in Ocala so we could fully understand all of Florida’s communities, the types of businesses flourishing there and how to make the local connection with Florida’s foray into international commerce. Knowing the economic situation in Marion County would help us sell Florida as an international distribution point in Tokyo, Seoul and Hong Kong.

That was nearly 25 years ago.

I occasionally think about the days I spent in Ocala in 1987. Where I once stood, there are now dozens of firms employing thousands of workers in areas known as Ocala Air Commerce Center, Meadowbrook Commerce Park and Ocala International Commerce Park.

As the Sunshine State shakes off the economic blow it received from the collapse of the construction and real estate markets, the question we all ask is: “What are the new economic drivers for our community?” Aside from some small bright spots in technology and health care, what will keep us on the map economically?

According to the Florida Chamber Foundation’s 2010 “Florida Trade and Logistics Study,” one of the areas offering economic sustainability is international trade and value-added logistics. Given Marion County’s close proximity to most of Florida’s 14 seaports and the state’s growing position in global markets, our community is positioned for multiple commercial opportunities in the upcoming decades.

Surpassing $130 billion in export trade activity and serving over 1.1 billion consumers, Florida is now repositioning itself as the “gateway to the Americas.” Over 570,000 Floridians make their living through the processing and trans-shipment of goods to that global market. Most encouraging is that the average wage of these jobs is almost $54,000.

Aside from increases in hemispheric trade, Florida and Marion County could capitalize on the widening of the Panama Canal and the utilization of “post-Panamax” shipping vessels. Florida ports could take advantage of redirected trade flows and supply chains as shippers and carriers redistribute to places like Florida.

With the current community dialog focused on restoring and reinventing our economy, these global logistic patterns provide clarity as our local government invests in infrastructure for new business parks like the Ocala International Airport and the Magna property. Now titled the Ocala/Marion County Industrial Park, the former 489-acre Magna property could play an integral part in a multi-modal transportation facility, featuring truck, rail and nearby air cargo capability.

Now, as we look over other vacant fields, critics say there’s not much here and ask why we should invest in something like this. But I envision a bustling commercial hub and international distribution center in just a few years, creating thousands of jobs for our community. The infrastructure expenditures our city and county are committing to will be an important investment for our future and that of our children.

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