Marion is now a sports tourism destination with WEC & FAST

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A little over five decades ago, Marion County was one of the largest tourist spots in most of Florida. It predated Disney World when the area hosted glass-bottom boat rides at Silver Springs Attraction and gunfights at Six Gun Territory.

In 1978, as tourism began to dwindle as travelers passed Ocala on Interstate 75 en route to Orlando, ABC Television opened Wild Waters near Silver Springs’ main entrance. By 1984, ABC sold its shares and Six Gun Territory closed its doors.

Though Silver Springs Attraction continued to survive thanks to a music venue and local season pass holders, it was permanently closed and converted into a state park in 2013. Gone were the days of Tarzan film shoots, Ross Allen’s animals and jeep rides.

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Flashback to 2022: Marion County is once again becoming a tourist destination thanks to the opening of the World Equestrian Center and now Florida Aquatics Swimming & Training (FAST), both on Southwest 80th Avenue.

These two venues are considered the best of their kind in the country and will boost tourism in a way Marion County hasn’t seen in many, many decades, local experts say.

The latest tourism facility to come on board is Florida FAST, the $38 million state-of-the-art indoor swimming pool that is already attracting the interest of professional swimmers and a large local swimming community.

The facility is located on Southwest 67th Avenue within the Calesa Township development near On Top of the World. It will host national, state and local swim meets starting this year.

FAST opens just over a year after the World Equestrian Center opened its mammoth complex, which hosts many mega equestrian events. WEC, as it’s called, is already bringing thousands of people to the area.

“For the first time in 50 years, tourism is a significant driver of our local economy,” said Kevin Sheilley, President and CEO of the Ocala Metro Chamber & Economic Partnership (CEP).

Six Gun Territory photos submitted by Ginny Williamson.

Officials say the WEC and FAST have solidified Marion County as a sports tourism destination

Sheilley said both WEC and FAST have and will bring tourists and many of them to Marion County.

“The sheer number of people they will bring into this community will be tremendous, especially now that we’ve added FAST,” Sheilley said when asked how FAST fits into the borough’s plan as an economic engine.

Sheilley said that just like the World Equestrian Center, FAST has “the opportunity to bring in really high profile events.”

The Circle Square Foundation will unveil the new Florida Aquatics Swimming & Training facility to the public on March 26th.

“This continues Ocala’s momentum to become a sports destination,” noted Sheilley. “And really, I think we can own that market for the eastern United States. I mean, there’s just nothing quite like it.”

Marion becoming a sporting destination includes the mountain bike location at the Santos Trailhead in the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross, Florida Greenway, the thousands of miles of hiking trails, the numerous scuba diving and swimming hotspots, and much, much more.

WEC plans to upgrade another elite equine event center on property along County Road 318, and of course there’s the Florida Horse Park. And Ocala often hosts state youth baseball tournaments.

With the Equestrian Hotel as a backdrop at the World Equestrian Center, Nadine Beck completes a jump aboard the Viktoria 77 in a competition in July 2021.

Marion County Commissioner Michelle Stone said, “FAST will become a destination for all swimmers, not just locally but internationally.”

“The scale of opportunity offered by this amazing facility is tremendous,” said Stone.

FAST is a non-profit organization established by the Circle Square Foundation. The foundation falls under Colen Built, the home-building company founded by On Top of the World developer Ken Colen.

The Circle Square Foundation will unveil the new Florida Aquatics Swimming & Training facility to the public on March 26th.

Circle Square Foundation: Study shows FAST will have an initial economic impact of $34 million

Rebecca Rogers, the executive director of the Circle Square Foundation, said that swimmers come from overseas: “We have a team that comes in from New Jersey in April to train for a week.”

Rogers also said that many Olympians look to Ocala as a place to live and train.

“People call us because we’re unique,” she said. “We have a 50 meter outdoor pool and a 50 meter indoor pool. So if you’re in Florida and it starts raining, you can just walk inside. It gives us so many opportunities.”

An economic impact study conducted during the pandemic states that FAST will increase Ocala/Marion County attendance by 12%. The study estimates that the county will collect $257,000 more in motel room taxes.

The Circle Square Foundation will unveil the new Florida Aquatics Swimming & Training facility to the public on March 26th.

The study also showed that FAST will create 425 direct and indirect jobs with annual wages of US$12 million. The study concluded that FAST will have a gross annual economic impact of US$34 million across the region.

“We’re going to be a real engine for tourism because there’s a huge fan base when it comes to swimming events,” noted Rogers.

Rogers said USA Swimming is “really excited to have this facility come online” due to the need for state-of-the-art facilities in the southern United States.

Due to the opening of WEC, and now FAST, in April, Rogers said she has received calls from investors buying homes to be used exclusively as Airbnb rentals.

The Circle Square Foundation will unveil the new Florida Aquatics Swimming & Training facility to the public on March 26th.

“I got a call from a woman who said she now has 12 properties within a three mile radius of the World Equestrian Center and now our facility,” Rogers said, adding that the woman had left her contact information. “A lot of Airbnb companies are now interested in buying smaller ranches because a lot of people are coming and living and staying for longer periods of time.”

Rogers said she also took calls from parents whose jobs allowed them to work remotely. A Melbourne family planned to move back to Houston, where “both of their kids are swimming stars and that’s where their coach is”.

“They found out FAST would be here and found out about our coaching staff and decided to move to Marion County,” Rogers said. “That’s why it’s even a magnet for some families. People want good facilities and a great community.”

Florida Aquatics' new swimming and exercise facility features an outdoor splash area for small children.  The Circle Square Foundation will unveil the new Florida Aquatics Swimming Training Facility to the public on March 26th.

Now that elite venues are coming on board, CEP officials say the area needs more accommodation

In recent years, there has been a construction boom of single-family and multi-family homes throughout Marion County, particularly in the southwest along State Road 200.

But with dozens of plans being submitted to the City of Ocala and Marion County planning and zoning authorities, very few are plans for the hotels, motels or other lodgings that will be needed when so many more people visit Marion County.

Sheilley noted that spring is the peak season in Marion County. With the addition of WEC and FAST, tourism will be brisk all year round.

“We have a 12-month draw now,” Sheilley said. “We have known for some time that we need significantly more hotel rooms. Those two venues really solidified us that we need more.”

About 100 people attended the opening ceremony of the 107-room Hilton Garden Inn on the downtown plaza in October 2020.

Sheilley added, “While that’s not the core of what we do, we regularly speak to hotel developers and help them understand what this opportunity looks like here and where those opportunities lie.”

Sheilley noted that he’s confident there will be a boom in hotel construction over the next few years to meet the demands of the market.

“For the first time since Silver Springs’ decline, tourism has an opportunity to make a significant contribution to the local economy,” Sheilley said.

Joe Callahan can be reached at (352) 817-1750 or at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @JoeOcalaNews.

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