Marion becomes a sports tourism destination with the addition of WEC & FAST
Just over five decades ago, Marion County was one of the biggest tourist spots in most of Florida. It was a time before disney world when the area offered glass-bottom boat rides at Silver Springs Attraction and shootouts at Six Gun Territory.
In 1978, as tourism began to decline as travelers passed through Ocala on Interstate 75 en route to Orlando, ABC Television opened Wild Waters near the main entrance to Silver Springs. In 1984, ABC sold its interests and Six Gun Territory closed.
Although Silver Springs Attraction continued to survive thanks to a concert venue and local season pass holders, it eventually closed in 2013 and was turned into a state park. The era of filming Tarzan, Ross Allen’s animals and jeep rides belonged to history.
Flash forward to 2022 and Marion County once again becomes a tourist destination thanks to the opening of the World Equestrian Center and now the Florida Aquatic Swimming and Training (FAST), both off 80th Avenue SW.
Both sites are considered some of the best of their kind in the country and will boost tourism the likes of Marion County hasn’t seen in many, many decades, according to local experts.
The latest tourist spot to board is Florida FAST, the state-of-the-art, $38 million natatorium that is already attracting interest from professional swimmers and a large local swimming community.
The facility, located on 67th Avenue Southwest, is located in the Calesa Township development near On Top of the World. It will host national, regional and local swimming competitions from this year.
FAST opens just over a year after the World Equestrian Center opened its gigantic complex, which hosts numerous mega equestrian events. The WEC, as it is called, already attracts thousands of people to the region.
“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).
Officials say WEC and FAST have cemented Marion County as a sports tourism destination
Sheilley said WEC and FAST have and will bring tourists, and many of them, to Marion County.
“The sheer number of people they’re going to bring into this community, especially now that we’ve added FAST, will be huge,” Sheilley said when asked how FAST fits into the county’s plan as a driver economic.
Sheilley said FAST has “the opportunity to host high-level events”, just like the World Equestrian Center.
“It really continues that momentum of Ocala evolving into a sports destination,” Sheilley noted. “And really, I think we can own that market for the eastern United States. I mean, there’s nothing else like it.”
Marion becomes a sports destination includes the mountain bike site at the Santos Trailhead at Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway, the thousands of miles of trails, the many springs for snorkeling and swimming and much more.
The WEC plans to upgrade another elite horse show center on the property along County Road 318 and, of course, there’s the Florida Horse Park. And Ocala often hosts baseball tournaments for the state’s youth.
Marion County Commissioner Michelle Stone said “FAST is going to become a destination for all swimmers, not just locally but internationally.”
“The scale of opportunity presented by this amazing facility is enormous,” Stone said.
FAST is a nonprofit facility built by the Circle Square Foundation. The foundation falls under Colen Built, the home building business started by On Top of the World developer Ken Colen.
Circle Square Foundation: Study Shows FAST Will Have an Initial Economic Impact of $34 Million
Rebecca Rogers, executive director of the Circle Square Foundation, said the swimmers came from out of state: “We have a team that comes in from New Jersey in April to train for a week.”
Rogers also said that many Olympians view Ocala as a place to live and train.
“People call us because we’re unique,” she said. “We have a 50-meter outdoor outdoor pool and a 50-meter indoor pool, so when you’re in Florida and it starts to rain, you can just move inside. It gives us so many options. “
An economic impact study, conducted during the pandemic, indicates that FAST will increase Ocala/Marion County visits by 12%. The study estimated that the county will collect $257,000 more in taxes on motel rooms.
The study also showed that FAST will create 425 direct and indirect jobs with salaries of $12 million per year. The study concluded that FAST will have a gross annual economic impact of $34 million in the region.
“We’re going to be a real driver for tourism because there’s a big audience when it comes to swimming competitions,” Rogers noted.
Rogers said USA Swimming is “really excited to bring this facility online” because state-of-the-art facilities are needed in the southern United States.
Due to the opening of WEC, and now FAST in April, Rogers said it is getting phone calls from investors who are buying homes to be used only as Airbnb rentals.
“I received a call from a woman who told me she now has 12 properties within three miles of the World Equestrian Center, and now our facility,” Rogers said, adding that the woman had left her contact information. “Many Airbnb businesses are now interested in buying small ranches because many people come to live and stay for long periods of time.”
Rogers said she also fielded calls from parents whose jobs allowed them to work remotely. A family from Melbourne planned to move back to Houston, where “their two children are star swimmers and that’s where their coach is”.
“They found out FAST was going to be here, heard about our coaching staff, and decided to move to Marion County,” Rogers said. “So it’s even a draw for some families. People want good facilities and a great community.”
Now that elite venues are coming on board, CEP officials say the region needs more accommodation
In recent years, there has been a building boom in single and multi-family properties throughout Marion County, especially in the southwest along State Road 200.
But with dozens upon dozens of plans in front of the City of Ocala and Marion County planning and zoning boards, very few are plans of hotels, motels or other accommodations that will be needed when so many people will visit Marion County.
Sheilley noted that spring is Marion County’s high season. With the addition of WEC and FAST, tourism will be vibrant all year round.
“We will now have a 12 month draw,” Sheilley said. “We’ve known for some time that we needed a lot more hotel rooms. These two sites really confirmed that we needed more.”
Sheilley added that “while it’s not core to what we do, we talk to hotel developers on a regular basis, helping them understand what this opportunity looks like here and where these opportunities are.”
Sheilley noted that he is confident that in the next two years there will be a boom in hotel construction to meet market needs.
“For the first time since the decline of Silver Springs in particular, tourism once again has the opportunity to be a significant contributor to the local economy,” Sheilley said.
Joe Callahan can be reached at (352) 817-1750 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @JoeOcalaNews.