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A proposal to build a grocery store and small shopping center in the heart of Ocala’s westside would benefit the community from both health and convenience standpoints and is in keeping with the city’s long-running efforts to uplift the neighborhood.
A partnership known as M2PCD, consisting of Ocala residents Fred Washington and Howard Gunn, along with Tallen Builders, has plans to build the strip center in the 2400 block of West Silver Springs Boulevard, next to the current Ocala Police Department substation. It will be called Paradise Park Retail Center. The developers say Save-A-Lot grocery chain has committed to locating in the center. The shopping center also would have the Heart of Florida Health Center, the county Health Department and OPD as tenants, making it not only a retail center but an important social services hub for that community.
Part of the reason the city has pieced together what is a $1 million-plus incentive package is because the neighborhood is deemed a “food desert” by health officials. That means there is no grocery store selling fresh foods that is easily accessible to large numbers of residents. With lower incomes and higher poverty, not to mention a lack of personal transportation, being more prevalent on the westside, getting to a grocery store can be a difficult, if not impossible task for many residents.
Since improving quality of life in its neighborhoods, particularly the westside, is a long-standing objective of the city, the notion of assisting in establishing a full-service, full-time grocery store there makes sense.
There are critics of the deal who will say the city should let the free market work. That providing incentives to establish a business where the private sector alone will not, is bad business.
But the reality is obesity and diabetes are two of our community’s most pressing health problems, according to a Community Health Assessment conducted last year for the Marion County Hospital District by WellFlorida. The district, along with the city and county, have made attacking these health issues priorities as the Hospital District disburses the millions in proceeds from the lease Munroe Regional Medical Center to Community Health Systems.
So having a grocery store in what is considered a food desert is a undeniable benefit to the whole community.
At the same time, West Silver Springs Boulevard is a major gateway to Ocala, and as former city manager Ricky Horst frequently reminded us, first impressions matter. More businesses make a more favorable impression.
Besides, the city has invested millions over the past two decades in street, utility and recreation improvements on the westside, although more remains to be done. This fits in nicely with those improvements.
The city has agreed to give M2PCD a 2.5-acre site, appraised at $380,000; $324,000 in reimbursements for construction and development costs; $363,000 in permitting and impact fee waivers; and a 70 percent tax discount for 10 years, an estimated $35,000 a year.
It is not a cheap project for the city, by any means, but people, indeed neighborhoods, need a grocery store for the health and well-being of both the people and the neighborhood.
It is encouraging that the westside may soon have a full-fledged grocery store where people without a car or the ability to go across town to a store can get a variety of fresh, healthy, more affordable food.
Now, it is up to the residents of the community to support not only the plan but the businesses that eventually move in to Paradise Park Center.