Save It, Don't Pave It - What does it all mean?
By Louisa Barton
A couple of months back, the horse community of Ocala, Marion County took a direct hit, when the news erupted that the Coastal Connector eight lane highway was likely to rip through northwest Marion County in about the year 2045.
The entire horse community rose up together to fight the battle to prevent a toll road cutting through some of the most beautiful farm country in 'the Horse Capital of the World'. Meetings followed, social media joined the battle and bumper stickers, road signs and fence banners started to appear everywhere, as horse people showed their distress and anxiety about the future of their farms and an industry we all hold very dear to our hearts.
I am told that the karst topography soil here in Marion County is only found in a few other places on this planet, Chantilly in France, Newmarket in England and Lexington in Kentucky. The soil, the water and the pastures here provide horses who are raised and/or trained here with the perfect ingredients for healthy bones and allow them to develop in to some of the best racehorses in the world. For example, American Pharoah spent a portion of his life here training and he became the first horse in 37 years to win the Triple Crown. The most recent horse before Pharoah to win the Triple Crown was Affirmed and he was born and raised here in Marion County. Most people believe that is no coincidence.
A few years back, the Ocala Marion County Chamber and Economic Partnership commissioned a study to see what the horse community was worth to our economy. The study proved that 17% of the economy was equine related, the amount being a whopping 2.6 billion dollars a year. The incredible soil, the beautiful farms, the quality of life here and the equine economic impact study proved the value of what we have here in Ocala, Marion County, which is home to 61 different breeds of horses.
The Coastal Connector routes drawn across a map were all detrimental to our farmland. One route cut directly through Live Oak Plantation, home to Chester Weber, one of the top drivers in the world and also home to the iconic Live Oak International Event held here every year.
One week after a very successful visit to Mike Dew in Tallahassee, by Lonny Powell, CEO of the FTBOA and Kevin Sheilley, CEO of the Ocala, Marion County CEP, we were all relieved to receive a letter from the FDOT saying the proposed routes would be postponed. This letter coupled with no budget available in the next 5 years to even do another study to come up with new routes, plus the fact that the next move for FDOT was for Interstate 75 relief work, we all took a huge sigh of relief.
The next question to arise was, is this a guarantee of no Coastal Connector corridor through Marion County ever? No, of course not, but does any community have that guarantee forever? Wherever you purchase a home or a farm, there is always a possibility of development. However, we can now rest assured that the FDOT will keep us informed on their next move and will make sure that key players in the Marion County equine industry will be involved in all future meetings about road projects that might affect our quality of life or be detrimental to our horse farm owners.
We are very thankful to the community as a whole, to the elected officials to the FDOT and to all the people who worked to get this result so quickly. We will continue to stay informed and keep our partners up to date on any changes. Last week, we were delighted to see the proposed routes taken down from the FDOT website, replaced by the 'postponement' letter to Mayor Guinn. As we move forward, we acknowledge that not every horse owner is in 'the horse business'. Many people who own horses and farms, earn their money other ways. This county needs businesses offering high salaries to provide employment, so that those people involved in leisure horse ownership, can afford to buy a horse, care for it and maybe even compete. As World Equestrian Center readies to open, that will become a catalyst for more growth and more transportation corridors will be needed. Balance is everything. As a lifelong horse owner and farm owner, my desire is always to protect our equine industry that makes up 17% of our economy, but there is another 83%. To continue a lifestyle that we enjoy, we need that part of our economy also. The key to success is to balance these things while also growing our economy and protecting our beautiful horse farms that give us our world renowned title, ' the Horse capital of the World'.
Together, I believe we can accomplish all of this and more!