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Big questions that will be answered in 2013

Ocala, FL - January 6, 2013
Published Ocala Star Banner on Sunday, January 6, 2013 at 6:30 a.m.

Munroe Regional Medical Center is shown on March 1, 2012. MRMC is Marion County's public hospital. One of the questions looming for 2013 is whether a private company will take over the hospital.

The new year promises a fresh start for many people in Marion County, but a fair amount of unfinished business followed us from 2012. A number of important — potentially community-changing — issues and stories made the leap to 2013 and are expected to come to a head this year.

The question, of course, is how they will be resolved.

Here is a look at eight big questions that should be answered in 2013.

Charges against the new sheriff?

Sheriff-elect Chris Blair takes office on Tuesday under a cloud of uncertainty.

Blair, who won office following one of the most unusual and controversial races in recent Marion County history, was investigated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in recent weeks for possible violations of campaign finance law.

The investigation grew out of an anonymous tip to Crime Stoppers of Marion County on Nov. 1. Sheriff Ed Dean said he passed the tip to FDLE because it was “detailed and credible.” Both Dean and FDLE agents have declined to elaborate on the allegation, however.

FDLE has completed its investigation and handed over its findings to State Attorney Bill Cervone in Gainesville because local State Attorney Brad King recused himself from the case.

Cervone is reviewing the findings but has not said when he will make a decision about possible criminal charges.

The investigation is perhaps the final chapter in a sheriff's race that has been riddled with controversy.

Blair, a 35-year member of the Sheriff's Office who became its top investigator before retiring, originally ran against Undersheriff Dan Kuhn and lost in the Republican primary in August.

But then news broke that Kuhn had been having an extramarital affair with a local private school principal, and he bowed out of the race. The local Republican Executive Committee then chose Blair from among 10 applicants to replace Kuhn on the general election ballot in November.

Blair easily defeated Constitution Party candidate Bernie DeCastro to claim the office.

What will happen to Michael Bargo?

Michael Bargo is the last of five defendants connected to the 2011 killing of Seath Jackson. His four co-defendants are serving life prison terms.

Authorities believe Bargo fired the fatal shots, and they are seeking the death penalty. The trial is set to start in February.

Bargo, 20, has pleaded not guilty. He also has complained of being taunted at the Marion County Jail by officers and attacked by fellow inmates.

Will the ‘Nature Park' become a state park?

Silver Springs Attraction has been losing money for years and it shows. The famed glass-bottom boats and some of the buildings are in disrepair, and state environmental officials have complained that alligator waste is polluting the Silver River.

It seems the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has finally heard the public's calls for action and is negotiating to take the park back from Palace Entertainment, the California-based amusement park company that has operated the park since 2002.

DEP officials recently held a meeting in Ocala to gauge public sentiment for the move and heard near-unanimous support for the idea of operating Silver Springs as a state park.

Will a private company take charge of the public hospital?

Munroe Regional Medical Center's fate may well be decided this year.

The public hospital, which is owned by the people of Marion County and overseen by a board of trustees, has watched its financial picture worsen for years because it serves a large number of poor people who can't pay for medical care and because its reimbursement rates from the insurers who do pay is low by industry standards.

Munroe officials, in a last-ditch effort to infuse the hospital with new money and keep it operating as a not-for-profit entity, asked the public last year to approve a hospital tax. Voters rejected the plan, however.

Now, hospital trustees are steaming forward on a plan to lease the institution to a private hospital company that might be able to keep Munroe in the black. The trustees are reviewing offers from several companies but say the earliest they could probably strike a deal would be late summer or early fall.

Supporters of the plan say a large, for-profit company with more resources and bargaining power might have a better chance of fixing Munroe's finances than the current not-for-profit operator. Opponents of the plan fear that a for-profit corporation will stray from Munroe's mission to serve the poor.

Will Stronach get his water?

When Canadian billionaire Frank Stronach announced plans to establish a massive farm here to raise grass-fed beef cattle, the plan was roundly praised by the community and political leadership as an economic development coup. It would be clean, it would create jobs and it might spur further investment in the area.

Then the other shoe dropped.

Stronach drew a great deal of criticism when he asked for a permit to pump an average of 13.3 million gallons of water a day to irrigate his pastures.

Environmentalists fretted that such a massive water withdrawal would harm Silver Springs to the south and drain the aquifer in an area of Florida that has been plagued by droughts for many years. They also worried that the huge amount of waste generated by the 30,000 cattle at Stronach's Adena Springs Ranch would leech into the groundwater.

Late last year, Stronach quelled some of the criticism by modifying his plan. He pledges now to draw 5.3 million gallons of water a day and to create satellite farms around the area to spread out the herd and dilute the impact on the environment.

The St. Johns River Water Management District is reviewing the permit request and is due to make a decision soon.

Third time a charm for downtown Ocala?

First, the Ocala City Council hired a little-known Miami developer to build a South Beach-themed cluster of shops and apartments in downtown Ocala.

The project had barely gotten off the ground when the developer, Jorge Gutman, skipped town, leaving a string of bad debts and unpaid contractors in his wake.

Next, the council tabbed two 30-something developers from Daytona to resurrect the project as a chic mix of trendy townhouses and shops. But the developers couldn't get financing for the project and bowed out.

Is the third time a charm?

We could find out in 2013, as City Council members are looking for someone to take another swing at injecting new architecture and life into the city center. Among the ideas they are considering is building a hotel, which some business leaders believe would be a boon to the shops and restaurants that are already there and perhaps spur additional development.

But City Council members have said they aren't jumping into anything too quickly. They'll evaluate their options and come up with a redevelopment plan that they believe can succeed this time.

In the meantime, a lot is already happening downtown.

Officials transformed a large space outside City Hall into a family friendly gathering spot and concert venue, they are dressing up several city streets, they have torn down nine dilapidated buildings and they are hard at work on plans to create a “linear park” that runs astride the railroad tracks on Osceola Avenue.

Will the commerce park commence?

Two developers created quite a stir when they unveiled plans in 2011 to build a major commerce park next to Interstate 75 in the middle of Ocala, but the project was quiet in 2012 as the dull work of surveying, platting, clearing, planning and permitting commenced.

The new year may bring some major developments.

Among other things, the developers have been tight-lipped about what businesses they are trying to recruit to this 500-acre project, dubbed Ocala/Marion County Commerce Park. But because the commerce park is an “inland port” concept that will be a stopping point for freight coming from and heading to major deep-water ports, we know the developers are looking for a mix of distribution centers and manufacturers.

We just don't know the names. Perhaps in 2013 we will.

Sales tax for safety?

In August voters rejected two proposed property taxes to help the schools: one for operations and one for capital improvements.

Now comes word that the School Board might ask for a half-cent sales tax to pay for safety upgrades in the wake of the Connecticut school shooting.

Also to be decided: Will the schools and/or law enforcement move to put armed resource officers in elementary schools? Some districts in Florida are making that move or strongly considering it; others are stopping short.


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